What do we owe wildland firefighters?

By Jonathon Golden

“It’s like having gasoline out there,” said Brian Steinhardt, forest fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino national forests in Arizona, in a recent AP story about the increasingly fire-prone West.

Now something else is happening — 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.

In my 11 years of work as a wildland firefighter, I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 — now nearly year-round — 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 a problem for career firefighters on a federal salary. To make matters worse, federal agencies revoked the “Transfer of Station” stipend for career employees, which helped offset the cost of moving. Just recently, a national forest supervisor also revoked a “boot stipend.” It might sound minor, but it isn’t: When you’re in the firefighting business, boots tough enough to save your life can easily cost you $500.

Some states aren’t relying on the government to act quickly. We aren’t just waiting for the next crisis to hit,”said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in establishing an $80.74 million Emergency Fund that delivers an additional 1,256 seasonal firefighters to boost CALFIRE’s ranks. This Emergency Fund is in addition to the governor’s $1 billion budget request for California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan.

In Washington, state legislators unanimously passed a $125 million package that will enable the state’s Natural Resources Department to hire 100 more firefighters. The legislation furthers the state’s efforts to restore forest health and creates a $25 million fund to ensure community preparedness around the state.

Utah’s House Bill 65, recently signed into law, appropriates money to help Utah’s communities offset the cost of wildfire suppression. Most importantly, it commissions a study to evaluate the current pay plan for firefighters within Utah’s Natural Resources Department.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider, was amazed to learn that frontline wildland firefighters make more money at McDonald’s: “These positions are critical,” he said. “They are the first ones on fires.” 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 won’t 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 today’s 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 they’d earn at a McDonald’s.

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.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/14/2021 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/14/2021 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/14/2021 Anchorage Daily Press Anchorage AK
06/15/2021 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
06/15/2021 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/15/2021 Prescott Daily Courier Prescott AZ
06/15/2021 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/15/2021 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/15/2021 Wildfire Today Twin Falls ID
06/16/2021 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
06/16/2021 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
06/15/2021 Park Record Park City UT
06/16/2021 Denver Post Denver CO
06/14/2021 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
06/14/2021 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
06/14/2021 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
06/14/2021 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
06/14/2021 Tigard Times Tigard OR
06/15/2021 Delta County Independent Delta CO
06/16/2021 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/16/2021 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
06/15/2021 Adventure Journal CA
06/16/2021 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
06/17/2021 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/17/2021 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/17/2021 Taos News Taos NM
06/18/2021 White Mountain Independent Show Low AZ
06/18/2021 Craig Daily Press Craig co
06/18/2021 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
06/20/2021 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
06/20/2021 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
06/20/2021 Lake Havasu News Lake Havasu City AZ
06/20/2021 Durango Herald Durango CO
06/19/2021 In These Times Rural Edition OR
06/21/2021 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
06/21/2021 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
06/14/2021 Logan Herald Journal Logan UT
06/22/2021 Tri-Lakes Tribune El Paso County CO
06/22/2021 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
06/23/2021 Three Forks Voice Three Forks MT
06/25/2021 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
06/22/2021 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
06/17/2021 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
08/18/2021 Novato Advance Marin County CA
08/18/2021 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
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