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The United States is experiencing a federal wildland firefighter emergency. Meanwhile, the southwest is getting record-setting wildfires, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service says they have a 50% vacancy rate in western U.S. federal wildland firefighter positions. If you live near or plan on vacationing in a national forest or park, you should be alarmed.
Experienced firefighters are leaving the job and fewer new people want it. Low pay is the primary reason, along with high housing costs and lack of affordable government housing. According to the blog Wildfire Today, federal wildland firefighters simply can’t afford to live in most Western counties.
Nancy Pelosi pledged that Congressional aides’ pay will be raised to about $22 an hour. Federal wildland firefighters start at $15 an hour. If congressional aides deserve a living wage (and they do), then so do federal wildland firefighters.
Despite millions of dollars allocated in the Infrastructure Bill to increase pay and hiring for federal wildland firefighters, the money has not yet reached them yet AND it’s only a two-year budget patch. The Office of Personnel Management and Departments of Agriculture and Interior say they are struggling with developing a new position with decent pay and career opportunities, partly because it’s just a temporary increase. But the National Federation of Federal Employees said this week that the agencies have authority to do something now for all federal wildland firefighters and have no excuse for not acting immediately. They stressed the high attrition and looming greater attrition because the agencies have failed to implement the infrastructure bill in a timely manner. Yet, another record fire season is already raging.
Meanwhile, firefighters are leaving in droves, choosing work that will support their families and not make them live in their cars. (Yes, many firefighters live in their cars during fire season.) Reuters, Politico and Buzzfeed have reported on this and other serious workplace issues, such as burnout from inhumane overtime hours and half the year or more away from their homes and families.
The pay problem can be fixed immediately with the passage of H.R. 5631, the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. But more on that in a minute.
The Forest Service says they will use contractors and temporary, administratively hired (“AD”) hires to fill gaps. But this creates safety and morale problems from lack of “crew cohesion.” Military training emphasizes cohesion because it’s a necessity of the profession. In firefighting, knowing the person next to you, and trusting they can hike or run uphill away from a fire to save both your lives, is critical. Contractors or ADs are less likely to be sufficiently fit.
Federal wildland fire crews are not easily replaceable. For example, elite hotshot crews are sent by foot to the hottest, most rugged and dangerous parts of fires, typically in steep, rugged terrain with few roads. Hotshots are known for their extraordinary fitness, skill levels and crew cohesion. They specialize in tactical burning, fighting fire with fire, burning ahead of a fire in order to take away fuels in larger areas.
Other examples are specialized smokejumpers who can immediately access very remote areas. Helitack crews are specially trained to support the many helicopters and airplanes used on wildfires.
The shortage of federal wildland firefighters has led to more use of municipal firefighters. While “mutual aid” among fire organizations is a key practice, these firefighters specialize in structure fires. Simply put, they generally have not seen as much wildland fire. Experience in safely and effectively fighting wildland fires takes time. Federal crews know when to stay engaged and when it’s time to go are trained in navigation in remote areas with limited roads, and know their local areas well.
Some states, including California, have fire agencies with wildland fire experience, but these are not national resources and do not have the same specialized crews. With the explosion of mega-wildfires on both private and federal lands, federal wildland firefighters are a critical resource.
The lack of federal wildland firefighters is a national emergency. It should be treated like one! President Biden should declare a federal emergency so a Federal Incident Management Team can troubleshoot the core problems and facilitate rapid resolution of the safety, human resource, communication and financial issues. They can help the agencies accelerate the implementation of the Infrastructure Bill. They can creatively solve underlying housing issues, such as ordering and setting up additional temporary housing, such as FEMA trailers.
This crisis affects the entire country. It’s time to call it the emergency it is and immediately devote the resources it deserves. It’s time to treat wildland firefighters fairly, with dignity and respect for the service they provide. It’s time to implement the Infrastructure Bill NOW, but that is only a short-term solution to this emergency.
The Tim Hart Act, H.R. 5631, provides a lasting solution, permanently increasing the pay, benefits and career opportunities for federal wildland firefighters. Call your Congressperson’s office today and ask your representative to vote for it.
Dr. Jo Ann Fites is a retired US Forest Service Fire Scientist, with over 15 years working on active wildfires. She has conducted 30 Firewise Community Fire Hazard and Risk Assessments, mostly in Nevada County.