It’s Time to Come to the Aid of Wildland Firefighters

By Harrison Raine

By mid-September, there was no one left to call. The West, with its thousands of federal, state, and local fire engines and crews, had been tapped out.

 Wildfires across the West had consumed the labor of all available wildland firefighters, and though there were fewer fires burning, those fires were larger and more difficult to contain. They consumed 13 million acres — an area almost the size of West Virginia.

 In the midst of the 2020 wildfire season, John Phipps, the Forest Service’s deputy chief, told Congress that this “was an extraordinary year and it broke the system. The system was not designed to handle this.”

 Draining the national wildland firefighting pool was why my fire crew and I had to work longer and harder than usual on the Idaho-Oregon border. We were fighting the Woodhead fire, which had peaked at 85,000 acres and threatened to burn the developed areas around the towns of Cambridge and Council, Idaho.

 With only three crews to try to contain a fire that required probably ten crews, it meant day and night shifts for 14 days. Each crew found itself with miles of fire line to construct and hold. With not enough person-power, we were always trying to do more with less, and it was no comfort to know that what we faced was not unique.

 Across the nation, the large fires meant working in hazardous conditions that called for far more workers than were available. For those of us on the line, it came down to little sleep and a heavy workload, combined with insufficient calories and emotional and physical exhaustion.

 Fighting wildfires week after week takes a toll on the body. Smoke contains carcinogens, and firefighters spend days exerting themselves immersed in air thick with ash. We all figure that the long-term health effects cannot be good.

 One of my co-workers confessed that he goes to sleep “with pain in my knees and hands,” and added, “I wake up with pain in my lungs and head.” Over a six-to-eight month fire season, minor injuries can become chronic pain.

 Wildland firefighters are also vulnerable to suicide due to job-related stress and the lack of resources outside of the fire season.  Long assignments put a strain on firefighters’ families and can damage relationships. A 2018 psychological study, conducted by Florida State University, reported that 55% of wildland firefighters experienced “clinically significant suicidal symptoms,” compared to 32% for structural firefighters.

 Wildland firefighters who work for federal agencies, such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, are classified as “Range” Technicians” or “Forestry Technicians” —  a title more suitable for golf course workers than people wearing heavy packs and working a fire line.

 Calling them “technicians” negates the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to work with wildfire. Most firefighters sign contracts as seasonal “1039s,” agreeing to work 1,039 base hours for $12-$16 an hour. This is one hour short of being defined as a temporary worker who is eligible for benefits such as retirement and year-round health care.

 Overtime work is what allows “technicians” to pay the bills, but once they reach 1,039 base hours some firefighters are laid off even while the fire season continues and their regions continue to burn.

 There is a remedy in sight: the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, which formally identifies wildland firefighters as exactly that, tossing out the technician term and recognizing the “unusual physical hardship of the position.”

 Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines introduced the bill last year, and recently, California Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa introduced the bill in the House. Co-sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, the bill currently sits with the House Oversight and Reform Committee. This is a nonpartisan bill that deserves support from every Westerner.

 We all know fires will continue to burn throughout the West, but right now many of the men and women who fight those fires on our behalf are suffering from burnout. Addressing wildfires as a national priority starts with recognition of the profession fighting them.

Image of Harrison Raine setting a backfire to stop wildfire from spreading

This column was published in the following newspapers:

11/30/2020 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
11/30/2020 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
11/30/2020 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
11/30/2020 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
12/01/2020 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
12/01/2020 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
12/01/2020 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
12/01/2020 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
12/01/2020 Vail Daily Vail CO
12/01/2020 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
12/01/2020 Delta County Independent Delta CO
12/02/2020 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
12/02/2020 Teton Valley News Driggs ID
12/02/2020 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
12/02/2020 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
12/02/2020 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
12/02/2020 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
12/02/2020 Craig Daily Press Craig OR
12/03/2020 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
12/03/2020 Taos News Taos NM
12/03/2020 Legrande Observer LeGrande OR
12/03/2020 Ritzville Journal Ritzville WA
12/03/2020 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
12/03/2020 Big Horn County News Hardin MT
12/04/2020 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
12/04/2020 Park Record Park City UT
12/04/2020 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
12/05/2020 Telluride Daily Planet Telluride CO
12/05/2020 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
12/05/2020 East Oregonian News Pendleton OR
12/06/2020 Big Timber Pioneer Big Timber MT
12/07/2020 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
12/07/2020 Arizona Republic Phoenix AZ
12/08/2020 Gallup Independent Gallup NM
12/08/2020 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
12/09/2020 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
12/09/2020 Lake Havasu News Lake Havasu City AZ
12/09/2020 Leadville Herald-Democrat Leadville CO
12/09/2020 Tigard Times Tigard OR
12/09/2020 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
12/09/2020 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
12/09/2020 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
12/09/2020 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
12/09/2020 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
12/10/2020 White Mountain Independent Show Low AZ
12/11/2020 Coos Bay World Link Coos Bay OR
12/15/2020 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
12/16/2020 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
12/16/2020 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO

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