Talk to those who know Les Rogers and you’re likely to find a common thread among the stories: Les cares about people.
Rogers retired as Texas A&M Forest Service Incident Response Department head and chief law enforcement officer last month, capping a 25-year career with the agency. A retirement celebration is set for Feb. 21 in Menard.
Rogers had been a law enforcement officer and a volunteer firefighter when he was hired by Texas A&M Forest Service as a regional fire coordinator for Northwest Texas — one of six such positions around the state and a new role for the agency.
Paul Hannemann, the agency’s lone regional fire coordinator at the time, said Rogers was well-suited for the role.
“We were trying to build a program with a group of people who knew our customers and had good knowledge of the area, and he fit the role perfectly,” said Hannemann, who retired in 2020.
Rogers said the main component of the job was building relationships.
“That’s what I did,” Rogers said. “I made it a point to get to know every fire chief in those 52 counties and every county judge my first year.”
That role laid the foundation for what would become a career defined by personal relationships.
Career of service
Rogers said he “caught the fire bug” while working through a Canyon Fire Department program while attending West Texas State University, now West Texas A&M University, in Canyon. The program allowed college students to live at the fire station and respond to fire calls at night and on weekends.
A friendship with the Canyon police chief led to a decade as a full-time patrol officer, field training officer and sergeant with the city while also serving as a volunteer firefighter.
It was Rogers’ role as a volunteer firefighter that caught the attention of Hannemann, who encouraged him to apply for a job with Texas A&M Forest Service.
Over the course of his agency career, Rogers has responded to hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other incidents across the nation.
Rogers wrote the first incident accident plan for the response that followed the Columbia disaster in 2003. He was also the last Texas A&M Forest Service employee to be demobilized from the search and recovery mission.
“I never dreamed that we would be mobilized to assist on the space shuttle Columbia recovery, working hand in hand with astronauts on a day-to-day basis for 100 days,” he said.
Also, Rogers and his team responded to five hurricanes in Florida in a two-month period. In 2005, they handled back-to-back responses to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Hurricane Rita in Texas.
Rogers, however, said the pinnacle of his career in emergency response was taking a team to New York City in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy.
“Our command post was set up next to the Fire Department of New York mobile command post in South Brooklyn,” he said. “It was a very rewarding experience. The folks in New York City were so gracious and thankful that we were there.”
Leading into the future
That same year, Rogers was named chief law enforcement officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service, a move that served the agency well, according to Jarred Lemmon, assistant chief law enforcement officer.
“He’s really just a well-rounded overall leader,” Lemmon said.
In that role, Rogers updated policies and procedures, instituted a department budget, and embraced technology and tools such as online reporting.
“He brought our department up to the standards of the current century and defined the path into the future,” Lemmon said. “He did things that are just immeasurable.”
Lemmon said Rogers always worked to ensure the department’s investigators had the tools and knowledge to be the best they could be.
“He was looking out for employees every day, and he was always cognizant about delivering justice in a fair and impartial way,” Lemmon said.
Putting people first
Rogers said he has been fortunate to have strong mentors throughout his career and has tried to pass on the knowledge he gained to the next generation of leaders. He said his philosophy as a leader was to trust the members of his staff and empower them to be successful.
“My No. 1 job was to give my staff the tools and resources they needed to do the job and advocate for them,” Rogers said.
Shawn Whitley started working under Rogers as a seasonal resource specialist while a college student. He joined the agency’s Abilene office full-time in 2006, a year marked by deadly Panhandle wildfires.
Whitley said Rogers offered guidance and allowed people to learn from their mistakes.
“He had this wealth of knowledge, and I was just trying to be a sponge,” Whitley said. “Having someone like that to learn from and guide me was a huge benefit.”
He said Rogers was always “cool, calm and collected.”
“If you needed someone to calm you down in a stressful situation, that would be Les,” Whitley said. “I just have a lot of admiration for him.”
Whitley said lessons learned from Rogers — treating people right, doing the best job you can and taking time for family — continue to influence him in his role as incident response logistics coordinator with the agency.
“He never let his people fail; he always set them up for success,” Whitley said.
Wes Moorehead, Texas A&M Forest Service fire chief, said Rogers established a reputation as a respected voice in the wildland fire and emergency response community across Texas and the nation.
“Les embodied the concept of servant leadership from the beginning and has used his passion for serving Texans as a driving force to grow and evolve the agency’s emergency response operations into what it is today,” Moorehead said. “Les has left an indelible impact on the agency and every individual he has worked with or served.”
Making a difference
Rogers said his 37 years in fire service and 35 years in law enforcement have been fulfilling.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do,” Rogers said, noting it has been especially satisfying to know the work throughout his career has made a difference.
“A lot of people have a job where they can’t see that they made an impact. We see that we make an impact every day — not just in fires, but in incident management, helping somebody after a tornado or hurricane, natural resource management … going out there and mitigating the fuels.”
Over the course of his career, Rogers said he’s seen fuel mitigation projects that saved homes and gave fire crews the upper hand in battling a wildfire.
“You can look right there and see what you’re accomplishing,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
Always a mentor
Rogers plans to spend his retirement in a way those who know him might expect: helping people. His wife, Joy, runs the Cross Roads Retreat and Conference Center in Burleson County as the nonprofit Christian organization’s only paid employee.
“I’m going to be her No. 1 volunteer,” Rogers said.
He said he also plans to eventually return to wildfire work as a seasonal employee, serving as a trainer or mentor to young firefighters in the field.
“I was proud to serve the state, serve the agency and serve my staff. I’m going to miss the people of this agency,” he said. “I’m going to miss the can-do and service attitude.”
Rogers said he’s confident in the future of the agency. His advice to those following in his footsteps is to be patient, ask questions and “surround yourself with good folks.”
“And hold your leaders accountable,” he said. “If they say they’re going to do something, hold them to it.”