By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Wildfires are becoming more of a priority for forest managers.
Even this early in the year, fires are raging out of control in several parts of the country – Texas and Colorado are scenes of devastation as wildland firefighters work to protect lives and property.
But those firefighters are harder to come by these days.
Donna Nemeth, regional press officer for the National Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, said the Forest Service is seeing a decrease in applicants for wildland firefighters.
“We are aggressively working to hire and create incentives for applicants for the 2022 fire year, and the efforts are ongoing,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
Being a wildland firefighter isn’t an easy job, according to Sam Wilde, Fire Marshal for Park County Fire District No. 2 in Cody. Wilde spent several years doing seasonal work as a wildland firefighter, being sent to help fight fires around the country.
“You’re required to commit to a 14-day work assignment and it’s not unusual that you could be working as many up to 14 to 16 hours per day in an environment that you can imagine can be very, very trying,” Wilde said.
“I mean, it’s hard work. A lot of these guys are digging hand lines, they are hauling hoses, and doing the hard work that it takes to fight a fire. And they’re doing that 15, 16 hours a day and then sleeping in a tent at night. And when there’s a lot of fires going around the country, it’s not unusual to get extended out to a 21-day assignment.”
Last year, nearly 59,000 wildfires burned more than 7.1 million acres across the country, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The nation was at a heightened preparedness level for a record 99 consecutive days in 2021, which meant longer stretches of work for firefighters already doing demanding – and dangerous – jobs.
According to a survey hosted by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group for the nation’s estimated 10,000 firefighters and their families, 73 percent of more than 1,800 people surveyed said they were regularly worried about the possibility of accidents.
That possibility became very real for the family of Cody firefighter Tim Hart, who died from injuries sustained in a parachute landing near a fire in New Mexico last June.
Those dangers, as well as low pay for federal employees (compared to those who work for private organizations), are among the reasons the U.S. Forest Service is considering changes to the pay and benefits package for wildland firefighters.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, wrote in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in August that private organizations such as Cal Fire in California were paying more than $66,000 per year for entry-level employees; the Forest Service’s pay for a similar position was just over $28,000 per year.
In response to these inequities, the administration of President Joe Biden, in its budget proposal submitted just this week, includes a significant increase in funding for the Department of the Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program.
And a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in October proposes to raise base pay for firefighters to at least $36,163, with recruitment and retention bonuses, a housing allowance and guaranteed hazardous duty pay. The bill title honors the Cody firefighter lost last year – it’s been named the “Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act.”
Wilde pointed out that firefighters can make good money, even though the hourly wage may be what some consider low.
“If you looked at an hourly rate it may not seem like they get paid a lot,” Wilde said. “But where the pay really comes in, and especially for the federal guys when you’re working 16 hour shifts, basically half your day is overtime, because they get overtime after anything over eight hours. Plus they don’t have any expenditures, we’re feeding them in camp and so they’re not spending any money. So when you go two weeks straight, you can imagine how many hours that adds up to.”
Nemeth said the Forest Service is in the process of another centralized hiring event, an effort to fill vacant permanent positions. She explained that the agency is working to address the rising wildfire “crisis” – the steep increase in the number, and devastating impact, of wildfires around the country in recent years.
In a memo to fire agencies around the country this week, Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeff Rupert pointed out that “climate change is propelling more frequent, extreme wildland fires that endanger lives, communities, and landscapes across the country.”
“The President’s budget request for wildland fire management takes meaningful steps to adapt to these challenges by transitioning to a year-round firefighting workforce and expanding efforts to restore fire-adapted ecosystems,” Rupert wrote.
The Forest Service has launched a 10-year plan to address the wildfire crisis. The strategy combines major congressional funding with scientific research and planning to create a national effort that will increase forest health measures over the next decade.
“The recently released ‘Confronting the Wildfire Crisis’ strategy will create healthier, more resilient landscapes as help to protect communities from the threat of wildfire,” said Nemeth, who pointed out that the plan prioritizes the well-being of the people who fight the fires.
“The Forest Service is committed to building a stable, professional, more permanent wildland firefighting workforce,” she said, “as well as programs that focus on mental health, resilience, and wellbeing.”
Wilde said that for him, the benefits of being a wildland firefighter far outweigh the downsides.
“As many things that I can talk to you about how hard it is, I can tell you just as many of these things that’s rewarding about it,” he said. “When you join the fire service, and especially in the wildland fire world, you get to meet people that you’re working with and basically living with for a period of time, and they become like family. I mean, I have so many people that I consider my brothers and sisters that I’ve worked with on numerous different fires, and it really is just a family type environment.”