In his 25-year career with Texas A&M Forest Service, Rich Gray never worried about his job title. Whether he was leading wildland firefighters or working with property owners on ecosystem improvements, “public servant” was always enough for him.
Yet his reputation transcends that basic description.
“I always told him I appreciated him as a mentor, I respected him like a father, and I loved him like a brother,” said Shane Crimm, Texas A&M Forest Service branch fire coordinator in San Angelo, who worked with Gray for 23 years.
Gray, who announced his retirement as chief regional fire coordinator last month, is one of the agency’s most knowledgeable practitioners in natural resources, land management and emergency response, said Wes Moorehead, Texas A&M Forest Service fire chief.
“Rich is truly an admired leader to many in the wildland fire community,” Moorehead said. “With a calm presence that commands attention — whether serving as incident commander of a large, complex wildfire or digging handline with a crew — he is respected by all who have the pleasure to work alongside him.”
At home in Texas
Gray began his career with Texas A&M Forest Service in 1997 as a wildland-urban interface forester for the agency’s Conroe District. He previously worked for Colorado State Forest Service and Arkansas Forestry Commission, but said he immediately felt comfortable in Texas.
“I was in paradise,” he said, adding the camaraderie and mentorship of the experienced members of the agency “made a great first impression and set the stage for me that this is going to be home.”
“Seeing the organization, capability and professionalism within the agency really resonated with me,” Gray said. “There were really high standards, and that’s what I wanted to work for.”
Within a year, Gray was named regional fire coordinator for Central Texas, a new role that helped establish the agency’s presence outside of East Texas and allowed him to forge relationships between the wildland fire and natural resource communities.
“The start of the regional fire coordinator program was really at the front end of expanding challenges in wildland fire,” Gray said. “Land-use practices were changing and we were seeing more fuel because of those changes. And drought was starting to become a little more cyclical, leading to more intense fire seasons.”
It was a strong group of agency leaders, along with those fire seasons, that pushed Gray to continue growing and learning.
“I got the chance to work for some great mentors who had high expectations but also gave us a lot of opportunities,” Gray said. “They let you learn from your mistakes and always had your back. Their actions and investment in people really defined those around them.”
An opportunity to serve
In 2019, Gray was named chief regional fire coordinator after serving in roles as state fuels coordinator, task force coordinator and assistant chief regional fire coordinator.
Through it all, Gray said, it was the people who made the job enjoyable.
“It truly is a family,” he said. “I’ve met some of the best people you could ever come across. The best part of the job was being with my crew — whether it was a task force or a hand crew — just being together. We shared successes and shared some learning opportunities through failures. Some of my closest and most fond memories are with the folks that I’ve worked with at the agency.”
Gray said he’s grateful for the many opportunities the agency has given him.
“The agency has allowed me to grow, and my success has been because it gave me opportunities,” he said. “It’s allowed me to succeed or fail on my own accord, and you can’t ask for better than that.”
‘A true calling’
Gray has been recognized throughout his career for his experience and quiet leadership in a range of programs, including conservation projects, wildfire response, fire prevention and mitigation efforts, and building partnerships. In 2021, he was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award in Excellence for Public Forestry. The Vice Chancellor’s Award is the highest employee award given by Texas A&M AgriLife.
“Rich has always been a fierce advocate for this line of work, seeking to raise awareness for the dedication and service of the men and women working on the fire line every day to protect Texans and the natural resources we all enjoy,” Moorehead said. “This was never just a job to him, but a true calling.”
Les Rogers, who announced his retirement as Texas A&M Forest Service incident response department head and chief law enforcement officer last month, said Gray was a good friend and natural leader.
“You won’t find anybody more passionate about natural resources and fire, from suppressing the fire to mitigating the fire, rehab after the fire, and, more than anything, fire leadership,” Rogers said. “Duty, respect and integrity — that is Rich Gray.”
Mark Stanford, who retired in 2022 as associate director for forest resource protection and fire chief, said Gray is a solid leader and outstanding firefighter who cares about people.
“Rich is one of the best wildland firefighters I’ve ever worked with,” Stanford said. “When we would have a complex fire that posed a real threat, I always felt better when I knew Rich was on the scene. I know people are alive today because of the actions of Rich Gray.”
Crimm calls Gray a “one-of-a-kind hands-on leader.”
“It doesn’t matter how insignificant the task may seem or how critical it is — from one extreme to the other — you could expect to bump elbows with Rich while you’re doing the job,” Crimm said. “He just sets people up for success and is so good at what he does.”
Through his work on emergency response, wildfire management, prescribed burning, defensible space and more, Gray has had an indelible impact on the agency and its employees as well as communities around the state. But Gray said his work has been personally meaningful as well.
“It’s taken me to some of the most beautiful places in Texas and across the country, and I’ve been able to work on things that are important to me — like the ponderosa restoration project in the Davis Mountains and managing ecosystems in the Lost Pines for the Houston toad,” Gray said. “It’s been an outstanding experience.”
Gray’s immediate retirement plans include not answering the phone.
“Because we’re a response agency, the job is 24/7, 365 days a year,” he said. “I’m ready to put the phone aside for a little while and enjoy some time with the family.”
But he expects to find himself longing for the fire line eventually, leaving open the possibility of returning to the agency as a seasonal employee.
“It’s been a great career. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. And I’d do it right here.”