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From local hot shot to a federal forest director, back to La Plata County

Shawna Legarza didn’t plan for a life of firefighting, but that’s what she found
Shawna Legarza, La Plata County director of emergency management, at a fire mitigation demonstration on Nov. 9. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Hot shots in the world of the U.S. Forest Service could be seen as the big-shots of firefighting. They are elite crews that travel cross-country to respond to wildfires and assist area firefighters. The Forest Service’s description of them says hot shots are so named because they work on the hottest parts of wildland fires.

Mancos resident Shawna Legarza took her place on a hot shot squad when she was hired by the Black Mountain Hotshots headquartered in Carson City, Nevada, in 1991. Legarza had no idea back then, but her time with the Black Mountain Hotshots would help catapult her career to heights she hadn’t dreamed of reaching.

Legarza eventually led a hot shot team of her own in La Plata County. She became the first superintendent of the San Juan Interagency Hotshots in 2002, but that was nowhere near the peak of her career. She went on to become the first female forest fire management officer of the San Bernardino National Forest in California and then the first female regional fire aviation director for the state.

In 2016, she was named the national director of fire and aviation under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a role she kept until she retired in 2020.

During her years of service, Legarza has worked on the devastated streets of New York City after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and she has seen the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005, which caused $18.5 billion in damages in the Gulf of Mexico.

These days, the La Plata County layman might be more familiar with Legarza’s current title, La Plata County director of emergency management.

She didn’t have big ambitions of fighting fires when she landed her first federal job with the Bureau of Land Management in 1989 as an engine crew member in Elko, Nevada.

“It was never supposed to be a long-term career,” she said. “I didn’t have all these aspirations to work in forestry and be a firefighter.”

She just needed a job to support herself through college, she said. And Legarza’s fire career did prove sturdy as she pursued her Bachelor of Science in teaching and exercise physiology, her Master of Science in kinesiology and her doctorate in psychology.

“I grew up on a cattle ranch in Nevada and my parents were really poor,” she said. “I didn’t have any money to go to college, so the local fire crew was hiring. When I turned 18, I got a job on the fire crew.”

After Legarza earned her master’s degree in kinesiology, she transferred from the Black Mountain Hotshots in Nevada to Alaska where she continued working with hot shot crews. It was there in the northernmost, coldest point in the United States that she would be introduced to the biggest mission of her professional career.

Monumental changes

Legarza was in Alaska when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

The incident management team she was with was on call for national rotation. They watched the news of the attacks on their television and were preparing to go when the federal government shut down airspace, Legarza said.

“I worked a night shift right at the pile,” she said. “There was a big building – I don’t know if it was Tower 4 or which tower number – it had a big beam that was stuck in it. And then the massive pile, and we were right at the pile.”

Legarza issued briefings to New York Police Department, New York Fire Department, the New York Port Authority, engineers – anybody and everybody who was working the night shift, she said.

“We outlined the grid where people worked,” she said. “Then we looked for stuff, and when we found stuff, we brought it into a makeshift desk there at the pile.

“We identified it if we could, if we kind of knew what it was. We put it in a log book, then we put it in a computer, then we took it down on a Gator, four-wheeler, down to the temporary morgue.”

Most of the artifacts Legarza and responders found in New York City are in the National September 11 Museum today, she said.

During the World Trade Center recovery efforts, Legarza met her husband, Marc Mullenix, who later took his own life in 2008.

“My big turning point in my life was when my husband committed suicide when I was down here in Durango,” she said.

The summer after her husband’s suicide, Legarza wrote a memoir, “No Grass.” It was published in 2009 and won first place at the Hollywood Book Festival in the category of biography/autobiography.

“(There’s) just a lot of emotions you go through,” she said. “Talking to my family and my parents. I just started writing.”

After her husband’s death, Legarza needed to leave La Plata County for a while. She returned to school and earned her doctorate in psychology in 2015.

In the present
Pictures of San Juan Interagency Hotshot crews from past years hang on a refrigerator in the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center in 2019. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Matt “Bear” Traynham, a friend and colleague of Legarza, said he thinks her husband’s passing made her who she is today.

“For her to go from a GS9 hot shot suit to the director of fire and aviation operations at the Washington office, and go to the White House, and, you know, in a matter of 10 years? That doesn’t happen,” Traynham said. “That’s amazing.”

Legarza offered Traynham his first full-time, professional job with benefits and retirement in 2009, he said. She made him an engine captain. Traynham said she likely made him and his career. He’s currently an assistant fire management officer in east Texas for the Angelina-Sabine (Loop) National Forest.

“With this job there’s so many personalities and so many people,” he said. “There’s good and bad. Shawna was always looking out for the crew first.”

After a couple weeks, the fire crew started to feel like family, he said. Legarza even caught on to his nickname, “Bear,” and she still calls him that today. She loves nicknames, he said.

“We (the crew) did everything together, on and off the clock, we always looked out for each other. Shawna oversaw that. She always looked out for us. She was a great suit,” he said.

Traynham said Legarza taught him a lot about firefighting, but also a lot about life. How to look at things, how to take care of oneself, what is important, what isn’t. He said she was outstanding.

Legarza took tragedy and earned a master’s, wrote a book and became the national director of fire and aviation, he said.

Rhonda Toronto worked with Legarza during her tenure as the national director of fire and aviation. Toronto took a job as assistant director for fire and aviation information management.

She said Legarza is the type of leader who doesn’t just know how to form and execute a vision, but one who knows how to let team members use their skills to help shape that vision.

Legarza was fully supportive of Toronto’s efforts to shift focus to important IT security updates that were needed to keep firefighter tracking systems, maps and weather data online and secure, despite the backlash they anticipated. People tend to focus on new and shiny program updates – less so on the core system infrastructure.

But Legarza and her team held fast against backlash from members of Congress and the public. Toronto said the backlash was “crazy.”

“The position that Shawna was in is probably the most influential fire position in the whole federal government,” Toronto said. “When congressional inquiries happen, which we have lots of them every day, they don’t go to the Department of the Interior most of the time to ask why is there so many fires. They go to the Forest Service.”

Toronto said Legarza and other women she knows were pioneers in the field of firefighting by pushing against stigmas surrounding women and their capabilities in firefighting.

Legarza said she tries to live in the moment.

“If there’s anything that’s been my passion the last 10 years, it’s definitely been that,” she said. “Self-leadership and having people be present, in the moment.”

She said she’s grateful to have returned to La Plata County with all the life experiences she carries with her.

“I’ve been in a Rose Parade,” she said. “I’ve been in a Thanksgiving Day parade. All these neat things happen.”

Legarza visited Australia, Brasil, Switzerland, Germany and Canada while working in Washington, D.C. Her favorite place to visit was Switzerland.

“The mountains were amazing,” she said. “It was like the San Juans, but gigantic.”


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