“It’s like having gasoline over there,” said Brian Steinhardt, wildland fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino National Forests in Arizona, in a recent AP article on l West increasingly prone to fires.
Now something else is happening – and at the worst possible time.
Federal firefighters leave the workforce and take their training and experience with them. The inability of federal agencies to offer competitive compensation and benefits creates hundreds of job vacancies in wildland firefighting.
Vacancies, of course, limit what federal firefighters can do. If Western communities want to be protected, they need to make sure their firefighters get better pay and benefits.
In my 11 years of working as a forest firefighter, I have managed airplanes, trained people and led fires myself, but I have also done outreach and recruiting for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. I know how difficult it is for hiring managers to put in 2,000 hours of grueling work, crammed into grueling six months, that looks appealing when the pay is $ 13.45 an hour. The salary is far from corresponding to the real demands or the daily dangers of the job.
Federal wildland firefighters are, by necessity, transient workers. During fire season – now most of the year – they must be available to travel anywhere in the United States at any time. And to advance in their careers, they must move to other federal duty stations to gain more qualifications.
Finding affordable housing has always been a problem for federally paid career firefighters. To make matters worse, federal agencies revoked the “job transfer” allowance for career employees, which helped offset the cost of the move.
Most recently, a national forestry supervisor also revoked a “start-up allowance”. It might sound minor, but it isn’t: When you’re in the firefighting business, boots strong enough to save your life can easily cost you $ 500.
Some states do not rely on the government to act quickly. “We’re not just waiting for the next crisis to strike,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said, creating an $ 80.74 million emergency fund that provides 1,256 additional seasonal firefighters to bolster the ranks of CALFIRE . This emergency fund comes in addition to the governor’s $ 1 billion budget request for California’s Wildland Fire and Forest Resilience Action Plan.
In Washington, state lawmakers unanimously passed a $ 125 million program that will allow the state’s Department of Natural Resources to hire an additional 100 firefighters. The legislation promotes the state’s efforts to restore forest health and creates a $ 25 million fund to ensure preparedness for communities around the state.
The recently enacted Utah House Bill 65 allocates money to help Utah communities offset the cost of forest fire suppression. More importantly, he’s commissioning a study to assess the current compensation plan for firefighters within the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Casey Snider, was amazed to learn that frontline wildland firefighters are making more money at McDonald’s: “These positions are essential,” he said. “They are the first to burn. This year, Utah has already experienced five times the number of wildfires it normally experiences in a year.
And the firefighters are getting organized and expressing themselves. Grassroots Wildland firefighters are working to stop the exodus of firefighters from federal agencies by advocating for pay equity with state and local fire protection agencies.
The group also supports initiatives aimed at promoting the physical and mental health of firefighters and their families. The statistics they put forward are shocking: forest firefighters have a suicide rate 30 times higher than the average. They also have a high incidence of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.
There is talk at the federal level of creating a permanent year-round firefighting workforce. I think this is a necessary step, but it will not solve the problem of workforce capacity unless increased wages and benefits are used to encourage recruitment and retention of employees. federal firefighters.
We all know that today’s wildfires are longer, more damaging and more frequent than ever. We also know that men and women risk their lives for less than what they would earn at a McDonald’s.
Our firefighters do all of this to protect our lives, our forests and our communities. We owe them at least a living wage and a chance to lead a healthy life. I hope more states and lawmakers start paying attention. It is a debt that must be paid.
Jonathon Golden lives in Moab, Utah, and helps Writers on the beach, a non-profit organization dedicated to sparking a lively conversation about the West. He left firefighting in 2019 to found a consulting firm that focuses on conservation and national security.