There are plenty of things all of us disagree on. But one thing we can agree on is that wildland firefighters do a vitally important job in dangerous, challenging conditions.
Fighting fires outdoors in hot, increasingly very hot, steep and rugged areas is extremely difficult. It requires extensive training and experience to develop the expertise necessary to work while staying safe near deadly flames and heat. It is a tremendous individual and crew supervisor responsibility to ensure that each firefighter comes home alive and in one piece after each day on the fireline.
Firefighters from all agencies come together to work on wildfires. They come from state, local and federal agencies. But federal wildland firefighters are paid half of what other agency firefighters are paid. Many do not have health insurance or other benefits, despite working in one of the most dangerous jobs.
Many make $13 dollars an hour, even after several years on the job. While it is true that there are many other jobs in the US that pay these low wages, few if any involve working where you could lose your life or have serious, life-changing injury at any moment. Few if any of these other jobs require the high level of training and expertise to not only do the job effectively but to stay alive.
With increasingly hotter weather and longer fire season, the job of a firefighter is getting more difficult. It takes a physical and mental toll to do this work for very long days, with little time off, away from their families for half or more of the year. Yet federal firefighters are paid far less, often half as much, as other firefighters. In order to support their families, they need extensive overtime and hazard pay. Most stay with these jobs nevertheless because they like and are passionate about what they do. But many others are burned out and demoralized by the very poor pay and working conditions.
In addition to poor pay, when they get seriously injured, there is a worker’s injury and compensation system that makes it extremely difficult to get help. There is endless paperwork and permissions required for even simple medical examinations, let alone treatment. Some of this requires extensive paperwork by their supervisors who are very busy and hard to reach, working 16-hour days on fires in remote areas.
The Wildland Firefighter Foundation provides the desperately needed help to guide and assist firefighters through the system to get basic treatment. Because of the glaring problems of experienced firefighters leaving and the lack of new applicants for federal firefighting jobs, Congress and the federal agencies are finally highlighting the problems with pay and retention. Retention and recruitment issues with hotshots who do particularly strenuous work directly next to fires, has been reported widely by major news organizations.
The president has pledged to take some immediate, urgent actions within his power to provide retention compensation that will temporarily boost pay. But more permanent action is needed NOW. The federal government has an excessively bureaucratic system to change job classifications and pay. The federal firefighters are classed as “forestry technicians” and do not get recognized as “firefighters” with the associated recognition of higher skill, expertise and job requirements that would justify higher pay. Today they are in the same job series as those doing timber inventories, trail building and recreation site clean-up. These jobs are important too but do not require extensive training, skills and experience to “read” where and how a fire will burn in extreme conditions. They do not require the highly specialized expertise of tactical, controlled burning used at critical times to protect water sources and towns. These same skills are also critical to conducting prescribed, controlled burns outside of fire season to reduce fuel load and potential for future intense wildfires that are highly damaging on forests, soils and air quality.
I spent more than a decade working as a technical specialist in fire behavior on wildfires. Because of my scientific education, I was paid far more than almost all of the firefighters I was working with on wildfires. Yet, my life depended upon their skills and experience. This is wrong. They should have been getting paid more than me! I was studying firefighter safety and effectiveness of different fuel reduction treatments. Most often I was documenting what these firefighters knew. The only reason I was able to do this was because I hired the most experienced former hotshots and engine captains to determine where we went to measure fire and fuels in the most likely places to burn, and ensure that we were safe. They should have been paid two to four times what I was instead of the other way around. I was paid more than all federal Hotshot Superintendents, Engine Captains, Operation Section Chiefs and most Incident Commanders. This is wrong!
There have been bills proposed by members of the fire caucus in Congress to permanently remedy this situation but have never made it out of committees. The Grassroots Wildland Firefighter Association (https://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com/learn) was formed by current and retired federal firefighters to highlight the dire situation and propose urgently needed remedies. Most of these ideas have been proposed for decades but have gone nowhere because of a lack of recognition at the federal government level in both the executive and legislative branches. Only now that wildfires are becoming more explosive, widespread and damaging, and federal firefighters are increasingly speaking up, leaving the agency, and not applying for jobs has the situation becoming glaringly apparent to all. At a minimum the legislation should: create a separate position of wildland firefighter that recognizes the high-level skills and responsibilities and commensurate pay; increase the base salary by at least 50% to a reasonable hourly wage of $20 and hour, still way below equivalent CALFIRE wages; make more of the workforce permanent so they get at least medical benefits in these jobs where there is a high risk of serious injury; and increase the workforce so that there is less burnout from increasingly long fire seasons and extreme overtime hours. We should all contact our Congressperson to support passage of legislation immediately, now that a more-dangerous-than-ever fire season is on us. I think we can all agree that the status quo is not right and needs to change. NOW!
Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman
Retired Fire Scientist, US Forest Service