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A team of USFWS employees gather in a circle for directions from Incident Commander Sami Gray.
Information icon Incident commander Sami Gray holds a morning briefing. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

A tough woman gets the job done

Incident Commander Sami Gray’s training in wildfires prepared her for Hurricane Irma

Big Pine Key, Florida – It was hot already at 8 a.m. with temperatures expected to soar under a cloudless, tropical sky. The men and few women gathered at the Nut Farm, a former coconut tree plantation tucked amid downed trees and storm-wracked buildings, were receiving their daily marching orders.

It had been a week since Irma and her 180 mph winds came ashore a couple of Keys over, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery efforts in and around the National Key Deer Refuge had been near-Herculean.

Yet the challenges remained daunting. No power. Mountains of debris. Growing fire risk. Returning and distraught residents. Dehydrated deer. Poisonwood rashes. Oh, and another hurricane – Maria – taking aim at the Keys.

A small deer with two growing antlers drinks water from a modified milk jug.
A thirsty deer drinks water provided by USFWS at National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“Nobody’s going to ask you to ride out any Category 3 storm here,” said Sami Gray, the Incident Commander in charge of the Service’s Irma recovery work in Florida. “We’re going to take care of everybody. If you need something, let us know. Do good things. Be safe. And thank you.”

Maria veered into the Atlantic Ocean and away from the Keys after devastating Puerto Rico. Hurricanes, wildfires, oil spills – Gray, 53, has tackled them all. She’s the top fire official for Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana based out of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. She’s also a woman in a male-dominated profession, and a Northerner to boot. Neither quality, though, keeps Gray from doing her job and doing it well, according to colleagues.

When calamity calls, Gray answers. Incident command requires a host of logistical, tactical and diplomatic skills to get a refuge, its employees and a neighboring community back on its feet.

“Sami’s no-nonsense. She’s all about, ‘Do what you need to do to get the job done,’” said James Harris, the senior biologist for the Southeast Louisiana Refuges Complex who has worked with Gray for 15 years. “People trust her. There are no hidden agendas. She has a lot of credibility.”

Gray abhors being the center of attention; she didn’t want this story written about her. She deflects praise to the sawyers, heavy equipment operators and law enforcers who get the job done. Or else.

A yellow backhoe moves a large pine tree from a road.
Grant Lovato, a fire equipment operator from Louisiana, uses a backhoe to remove a tree that was blocking a public road at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“Everybody knows to remain professional, do their job, stay in their lane and meet my standards or they certainly will not deploy on the next assignment,” Gray said in an interview in the midst of another 16-hour day. “I expect a lot of people, but I treat them well.”

“Bitten by the fire bug”

Gray was raised in Brooksville, Maine, a fishing, farming and quarrying village (pop. 930 and dropping) halfway up the coast. She attended a private high school in nearby Blue Hill where a lifelong love of sports was nurtured on the soccer, basketball, softball and cross country teams.

She “kicked around and did the hard-knock stuff” after high school: cutting grass; painting homes; fishing for lobster.

“I worked hard for everything and people respected me for that,” she said.

The conservation bug bit in 1987. Gray took a seasonal job with Maine’s parks department.

“I loved it,” she said. “I knew what wanted to do, but it took forever to find a full-time job.”

Gray parlayed the state gig into a seasonal job at Acadia National Park, a favorite sunrise viewing spot along Maine’s rocky coast. Winters, she’d serve as a forestry technician with the Service at Mississippi Sandhill Crane.

The summer of 1992 proved fateful. Gray signed up to fight a nasty Idaho fire. Her boss at Acadia threatened to demote her if she went. She went anyway. It was, literally, her baptism by fire. But let Gray tell it:

“It was a ragtag crew. Everybody was out of shape and green as a gourd. We were just running contingency lines with chainsaws and clearing brush nowhere near the front line. But it was crazy conditions to do a backfire in. The relative humidity was in the single digits in the middle of day. The fire immediately blew up. It jumped the line. It was crowning out in the treetops. We had to get the crew off the mountain fast. The fire was ripping and tearing all around us. We found a spring-fed area, a safe zone. We cleared the area and all huddled together. There were a lot of inexperienced people crying, thinking it was over. I tried to reassure everybody that it would be fine, but inside I was praying. The fire moved around us and we were fine. That was my introduction to western fire – and I loved it. I wasn’t scared at all. I was just amazed by the intensity of the fire.”

Gray served as a “hotshot” in 1996, fighting fires in Oregon, Alaska and Northern California. The elite, and physically tough, firefighters hiked into the belly of the fire beasts with chain saws, shovels and 45-pound packs. They slept on the ground. Showers were a distant dream. An airplane dumped 1,000 gallons of fire retardant on Gray and her comrades during one particularly nasty fire.

“You’re either bitten by the fire bug or you’re not,” said Jon Wallace, a deputy regional fire coordinator with the Service who has shared 17 years worth of calamitous assignments with Gray. “Sami is exceptional at walking into a chaotic situation and making sense of it. She has a strong bias for action. She makes a decision and moves forward.”

Gray was hired full-time by Fish and Wildlife in 1995 and began riding the Southern wildlife refuge circuit: Mississippi Sandhill to Reelfoot to Southeast Louisiana and back to Sandhill.

“My first week on the job in Mississippi I was told by the maintenance mechanic that he could not work with any damn Yankee and that I needed to go home,” Gray recalled. “I told him I’m here to stay and he better get used to it. We became great friends. He even taught me how to drive an 18-wheeler. I still have my commercial driver’s license.”

She may have left Maine two decades ago, but the north never left Gray. She owns the family’s 55-acre organic egg farm and returns for three weeks every summer. She misses most the “smell of real salt air from the Atlantic Ocean.” Also missing: the letter R from her vocabulary. Back yard, for example, is pronounced “back yahd.” Parking lot is “pah-king lot.”

“We can make a difference”

Hurricane Katrina, the monstrously destructive 2005 storm that inundated the Gulf Coast and killed 1,800 people, was Gray’s first big leadership challenge. She was the de facto incident commander in Mississippi tasked with rescuing survivors, securing homes, stanching oil spills, opening roads and fighting fires.

Refuges were hammered by Katrina’s winds, rains and storm surge. Fires, wild and intentional, raged. Downed trees kept Gray from her Kiln, Mississippi, house for a week.

Fallen trees and power linds block the entrance to Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
Blocked entrance to Southeast Louisiana Headquarters complex. Photo by Tom MacKenzie, USFWS.

“Irma was nowhere near close to what Katrina was,” Gray said. “I really saw all aspects of humanity. I witnessed looting in my own neighborhood and I witnessed people helping one another like never before. Fish and Wildlife was one of the most compassionate agencies. We really took care of our people. We made a big difference.”

Gray has tackled countless wildfires, hurricanes, oil spills and the New World screwworm infestation. A parasite last year killed 135 of the much-loved and federally endangered Key deer that call the Lower Keys home. Gray cobbled together a team of trusted cohorts and headed to Big Pine Key last October.

Widespread fears that the deer would infect Florida’s livestock industry prompted the massive, multi-agency response. Handling the deer lovers and the media warranted a deft hand. Gray coordinated the release of 470 million sterile flies and gobs of anti-parasitic medication – some dispensed by hand via treated donut holes – and the crisis was declared over last spring.

Last month she found herself back at National Key Deer Refuge tackling Irma’s aftermath. Each day started with a 7 a.m. conference call with task forces scattered around Florida and headquarters in Atlanta. A report of the previous day’s successes was followed by the current day’s priorities – which always shifted.

A road needed clearing quickly. A refuge employee’s house required a generator. A National Guard unit requested permission to bunk at the new visitors’ center. (Permission granted.) Dehydrated deer needed salt-free water. An in-home visit to a refuge “friend” was postponed when a dead body turned up in her backyard.

Two men in Army fatigues hand a case of supplies to a resident.
The Florida National Guard dispenses water and food to Keys residents from the National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The 60 or so Service workers needed showers, air-conditioned sleeping quarters, meat at dinner and continual reminders that each hour spent clearing debris required a 15-minute break.

And an evacuation plan for Hurricane Maria needed immediate attention.

“We need to help the impacted people, but I make sure the crews have everything they need to do their jobs,” Gray said. “One of the main reasons I do this is because I feel we can make a difference and get people back on their feet.”

Incident command relies heavily on military precision and jargon. Brevity is prized. Gray doesn’t like to be interrupted. On one 7 a.m. call, with the phone on mute, she chastised somebody on the line to “stay in your lane.”

Gray ordered one sickly employee not to journey to the Keys for fear of “compromising the mission.” And she issued a “strong verbal warning” to two arguing, and stressed, employees.

Gray, though, expects no less of herself. She hauled water from the marsh so toilets could be flushed. She picked up a dead Key deer off U.S. 1. She volunteered to clean up chicken poop at a refuge employee’s home. And she also got poisonwood – nastier than poison ivy – while hauling tree limbs from the road. All while wearing a brace on the leg she broke in July while pitching baseballs to her son Max’s Little League team.

“She’s demanding, but if you do your job she’ll have your back,” said Hal Jones, a team leader from a Mississippi fish hatchery who has worked hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Sandy, Matthew and Irma with Gray. “I think the world of her. She’s an outstanding leader.”

Her toughness comes naturally, though she continually proves herself in the male-dominated worlds of firefighting and incident commanding.

“When I came along I was told women used to know their place, that they were good for making coffee and that’s about it,” Gray said. “These jobs are hard for a lot of people regardless of gender. You’re expected to work very long hours and be physically strong. I did all that.”

All while raising two boys. Gray wore two watches in the Keys, one set to Eastern time, the other to Central so she’d know what Jimmy and Max were doing and when. She missed Jimmy’s homecoming football game, but husband James, a Service equipment operator, did the play-by-play during a lengthy Friday evening phone call.

Gray ordered her troops to do “wellness checks” on refuge volunteers and offered food, water and help clearing debris from their yards. She fretted about the deer’s health and corralled one into a pen with water. One day she handed a toy truck to the father of a boy whose refuge home was damaged by Irma.

The next day, at the morning Nut Farm gathering, Gray told the sawyers, truck drivers and wildlife officers what they wanted to hear.

“We’re wrapping up soon and you can get back to your families,” she said. “Until then, I have no doubt we’ll continue to do great things.”


Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-4028

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