Wildland firefighters need our support

By Gregory Mcnamee

At any given moment during this smoky summer of 2023, hundreds of wildfires were blazing in the United States — more than 850 as of late July, according to the nonprofit Fire, Weather & Avalanche Center. Most of those wildfires ignited in the forests of the American West.

Fires were also burning by the thousands in Canada, creating a pall of particulate-dense smoke that blotted out views of the Chicago skyline and the Washington Mall. Those fires are expected to burn well into fall.

This hellish aspect lends weight to historian Stephen Pyne’s conclusion that we live now in an age of fire called the “Pyrocene.”

Assembled to combat these blazes is a massive army of wildland firefighters. Some are volunteers, some are prison work crews earning time credited against their sentences. Some are municipal firefighters dispatched to the woods.

Some 11,300 of them are federal firefighters, called “forestry technicians,” who work under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.

For all of them, it’s exhausting work. Wildland firefighters typically log 16-hour days for weeks at a time, burning 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day while carrying heavy backpacks.

It’s punishing labor and always dangerous. Barely a year has gone by in the last quarter-century that has not seen at least 15 firefighter deaths, the victims not just of flames and smoke but also of heat exhaustion, vehicle accidents, air crashes, falling trees and heart attacks.

Often, they don’t die alone. In June 2013, 19 “Hotshots” burned to death in a horrific Arizona wildfire, the third-greatest loss of wildland firefighters in U.S. history.

Yet despite the hardships and the history, a mandated pay raise in June 2021, spurred by President Joe Biden, brought the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighters up to a mere $15 an hour.

Firefighters of my acquaintance seldom cite money as a motivator for their work. They fight fires in the spirit of public service, while in some rural communities, as a young Apache firefighter told me, “It gives us something to do.”

But firefighters, like everyone else, must shoulder rents and mortgages and groceries, and a paycheck of less than $3,000 a month just doesn’t cut it.

Enter a temporary order from President Biden raising that base pay rate by 50 percent. Put in place in August 2022, and retroactive to the previous October as part of a hotly contested package of infrastructure-funding policies, the pay raise was funded only until September 30, 2023, after which pay for wildland firefighters drops back to 2020 levels.

Wildland firefighters lobbied for Biden’s pay raise to be made permanent but they made few inroads. That was until they finally found an ally in Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Now an independent, Sinema allied with Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana, and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana to introduce the bipartisan Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act. It would fund permanent pay increases.

By late June of 2023, their bill had passed out of committee by a vote of 10 to 1, the only no vote coming from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. When it reaches the Senate floor, it will be open to debate and a full vote.

There, however, the politicians are likely to squabble, especially on the House side. Larger issues loom, too, such as the need to revise policy so that forests are better managed to improve the conditions that now foster massive wildfires. Those conditions are the product of a “wise use” regime that saw forests as profitable tree farms and not as living systems The Forest Service also had a decades-long policy of dousing all wildfires as early as possible.

While Washington deliberates, and while a more comprehensive bill compensating wildland firefighters struggles to gain traction, fires continue to burn in the outback. Without a pay raise, federal officials fear, some firefighters will walk away from a risky and insultingly low-paying job.

Wildland firefighters are needed right now, and we need to pay them what they deserve through the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act. They will be needed even more in a future of climbing temperatures and widespread drought causing even more massive wildfires.

We can only hope that we will have the firefighters to confront them.

Gregory McNamee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is an author and journalist in Tucson.

Calwood fire, near Jamestown Colorado, by Malachi Brooks, via Unsplash

This column was published in the following newspapers:

08/15/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
08/14/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
08/14/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
08/14/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
08/14/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
08/14/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
08/14/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
08/14/2023 Valley Times News Portland OR
08/15/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
08/14/2023 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
08/15/2023 Sierra Vista Herald Sierra Vista AZ
08/15/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
08/16/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
08/16/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
08/14/2023 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
08/16/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
08/16/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
08/16/2023 Park Record Park City UT
08/17/2023 Gunnison Times Gunnison CO
08/17/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
08/19/2023 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
08/18/2023 Wyofile WY
08/18/2023 Herald-Journal Logan UT
08/18/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
08/19/2023 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
08/17/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
08/16/2023 Taos News Taos NM
08/16/2023 ABQ News Albuquerque NM
08/17/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
08/18/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
08/18/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
08/19/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
08/18/2023 Colorado Springs Tribune Colorado Springs CO
08/17/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
08/18/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
08/17/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
08/20/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
08/19/2023 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
08/20/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
08/14/2023 Sandoval Signpost Sandoval County NM
08/16/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
08/19/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
08/18/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
08/15/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
08/18/2023 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
08/23/2023 Three Forks Voice Three Forks MT
08/19/2023 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
08/30/2023 East Oregonian News Pendleton OR
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Rick Freimuth
10 months ago

Thanks for this one Greg and thank you Writers On The Range! You put this important message into a tidy nutshell for all. Please, everyone in western states and beyond, call and write your congresspeople to support every bill that comes across their desk in support of our federal Wildland Firefighters.

Chris Benz
10 months ago

Thanks for talking about this. I’ve seen too many good firefighters quit because it’s just unsustainable wages. That’s especially true with rising housing prices in rural areas.

Sinema’s bill doesn’t raise wildland firefighter pay nearly enough. It’s a slight decrease from what they’ve been earning the past few years. And what they’re earning now isn’t enough. About half of the seasonals on my last crew lived in their cars.

Call your senators and representative about Tim’s Act. The status quo isn’t good enough.

Another great article… – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
10 months ago

[…] Wildland firefighters need our support […]

10 months ago

I do not trust Sen. Sinema for one second. Other progressives have called her out on this issue. Can you please give it a second look?
https://theintercept.com/2023/07/28/kyrsten-sinema-bill-firefighter-pay/ PS I am not an NPS employee but I work for a nonprofit that is associated with federal parks. There’s a helipad base at the facility I work at, and meeting the interaagency fire crews detailed there is an honor and a privilege.

Wayne Hare
10 months ago

There is no doubt that firefighters deserve a higher pay rate. In recognition of the low rate of pay, The Dept of Interior and the Forest Service have been giving sizable bonuses to career firefighters who agree to stay on the job for some period of time. Hopefully this will translate into permanent raises for not just career firefighters, but the vast army of seasonals as well.

In the firefighter world a “good’ season is a season with a lot of fires and overtime…not that any honest firefighter wants to see a healthy forest burn. An unhealthy forest is another matter. But just to keep things real, teams go out on two week assignments and if the fire continues on beyond two weeks – and these days they usually do – the team can stay for 21 days before a required 2-day break, after which they can go out again. $15.00 an hour on a 21 day assignment with over-time factored in translates to a $6,600 paycheck. And if the firefighter was on the front lines, which they typically are, hazard pay equals an additional 25%, bringing that three week check up to $8,325 for the lowest paid firefighter. Is even that enough? Probably not, but it’s more than the $15.00 an hour number implies.

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