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Today is National Wildland Firefighter Day. It’s a great reminder to reflect on the brave and dedicated wildland firefighters in our county, state, country and all across the world. Yes, sometimes we get help from afar including Australia and New Zealand.
The Rices Fire is a stark reminder of just how fortunate we are to have so many highly skilled wildland firefighters locally. We have a very strong US Forest Service, CALFIRE and local fire agency wildland firefighter presence in the county and nearby areas. They all respond rapidly to wildfires, protecting our homes, lives, means of living and beautiful area. In our county and many other rural and wildland urban interface areas, the local fire departments respond to both structure and wildland fires. Often underappreciated are the local firefighters, including those at volunteer fire departments such as the North San Juan Fire Protection District near me. They dedicate a minimum of 12 hours a week and one weekend a month as volunteers to staff the district. Usually first on the scene, they play critical roles of communicating with the Grass Valley Emergency Command Center and doing all they can to fight the fire as it is taking off. Countless wildfires are halted in their tracks by the rapid response of all our local firefighters.
Local firefighters from all agencies are also vital to effective firefighting because they know the local area like the back of their hand. They know all the little roads, water sources, gates and values at risk. They know where people live that may need help evacuating. All of the local fire departments, CALFIRE and Tahoe National Forest firefighters help each other and know the area. When firefighters come from near and far to help out, like on the Rices fire, the local firefighters are relaying this critical knowledge to them. The local firefighters also have experience in local wind and fire patterns, vital to effective fire tactics and firefighter safety.
So thank our wildland firefighters when you see them. They appreciate friendly waves and signs too. For the federal wildland firefighters, there is one more very important thing we can all do to show our appreciation. I have written before about the poor pay, starting at wages not much more and sometimes less than the local fast-food workers. Both work hard. But as pointed out by a seasoned firefighter recently in Wildfire Today “instead of standing in front of hot grills, they are standing in front of 100 foot flames”. They put their lives on the line. Already this fire season there have been multiple very serious injuries (broken pelvic and shattered skull) and fatalities.
They include federal wildland hotshot crews that are the ones that hike deep into steep canyons and inaccessible areas, like in the Rices Fire. They include federal helitack crews that are specialized in bringing in firefighters by air, supporting tanker and helicopters, and rapidly getting injured firefighters out from hard-to-reach places.
While the Infrastructure Bill directed pay raises for federal wildland firefighters, including all firefighters on specialized crews and fire engines,
it still hasn’t made it to them yet! Supposedly it was to happen by the end of June. [Correction at 2:08 pm: Federal firefighters did get back pay last week from infrastructure bill.] This will bring their pay closer to their state counterparts, CALFIRE, but not equal. And it will only last a couple of years. Congress can make it permanent by passing the Tim Hart Act, named after a smokejumper that died a few years ago. I urge everyone to contact Senators Feinstein and Padilla, our representative Doug LaMalfa, and the White House and tell them it needs to be passed now! I try and write or call every month and often every week. If you want to learn more about it, you can go to the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters’ site, https://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com/tims-act. They also have information on lack of affordable, decent housing and other basic issues. Please join me in doing our part to get this bill passed. Wildland firefighters deserve our gratitude and pay. But they also deserve decent pay!
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.