Federal wildland firefighters are leaving the workforce because the risks of the job outweigh the poor pay. It couldnât happen at a worse time.
âItâs like having gasoline out there,â said Brian Steinhardt, forest fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino national forests in Arizona, in aÂ recent AP story about the increasingly fire-proneÂ West.Â
Now something else is happening?â?and at the worst possible time.
Federal firefighters are leaving the workforce and taking their training and experience with them. The inability of federal agencies to offer competitive pay and benefits is creating hundreds of wildland firefighting vacancies.
Vacancies, of course, limit how much federal firefighters can do. If Western communities want to be protected, they need to ensure that their firefighters receive better pay and benefits.The pay doesnât come close to matching the true demands or everyday dangers of the job.
In my 11 years of work as a wildland firefighter, Iâve managed aircraft, trained people and run fires myself, but I also did outreach and recruitment for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. I know how hard it is for hiring managers to make 2,000 hours of grueling work, crammed into six exhausting months, sound appealing when the pay is $13.45/hour. The pay doesnât come close to matching the true demands or everyday dangers of the job.
Federal wildland firefighters, by necessity, are transient workers. During the fire season?â?now nearly year-round?â?they must be available to travel anywhere in the United States at any time. And to advance in their career, they have to move to other federal duty stations to gain more qualifications.
Finding affordable housing has always been aÂ problem for career firefighters on aÂ federal salary. To make matters worse, federal agencies revoked theÂ ?âTransfer of Stationâ stipend for career employees, which helped offset the cost of moving. Just recently, aÂ national forest supervisor also revoked aÂ ?âboot stipend.â It might sound minor, but it isnât: When youâre in the firefighting business, boots tough enough to save your life can easily cost you $500.
Some states arenât relying on the government to act quickly. ?âWe arenât just waiting for the next crisis to hit,â said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in establishing an $80.74 million Emergency Fund that delivers an additional 1,256 seasonal firefighters to boost CAL FIREâs ranks. This Emergency Fund is in addition to the governorâs $1 billion budget request for Californiaâs Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan.
In Washington, state legislators unanimously passed a $125 million package that will enable the stateâs Department of Natural Resources to hire 100 more firefighters. The legislation furthers the stateâs efforts to restore forest health and creates a $25 million fund to ensure community preparedness around the state.
Utahâs House Bill 65, recently signed into law, appropriates money to help Utahâs communities offset the cost of wildfire suppression. Most importantly, it commissions a study to evaluate the current pay plan for firefighters within Utahâs Natural Resources Department.
The billâs sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider, was amazed to learn that frontline wildland firefighters make more money at McDonaldâs: ?âThese positions are critical,â he said. ?âThey are the first ones on fires.â This year, Utah has already had five times the number of wildfires it normally experiences in a year.
And firefighters are organizing and speaking up. The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is working to halt the exodus of firefighters from federal agencies by advocating for pay parity with state and local fire protection agencies. The group also supports initiatives to assist the physical and mental health of firefighters and their families. The statistics they highlight are shocking: Wildland firefighters have a suicide rate 30 times higher than the average. They also experience high incidences of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.
There is talk on the federal level of creating a permanent, year-round firefighting workforce. I think this is a necessary step, but it wonât fix the workforce capacity issue unless increased pay and benefits are used to encourage the recruitment and retention of federal firefighters.
We all know that todayâs wildfires are longer, more damaging and more frequent than ever before. We also know that men and women are putting their lives on the line for less than theyâd earn at a McDonaldâs.
Our firefighters do all this to protect our lives, our forests and our communities. We owe them at least a living wage and a chance for a healthy life. I hope more states and legislators will start paying attention. This is a debt that needs to be paid.
Editorâs Note: This article was provided by Writers on the Range, writ?er?son?therange?.org, aÂ nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about theÂ West.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Golden is aÂ contributor to Writers on the Range, writ?er?son?therange?.org, aÂ nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He left firefighting inÂ 2019Â to found aÂ consulting company that focuses on conservation and nationalÂ security