U.S. firefighters on climate frontlines sound alarm over staffing

by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher -Schapiro | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 April 2022 12:00 GMT

Firefighters respond to the Sycamore Fire which destroyed several homes in Whittier, California, U.S., February 10, 2022. REUTERS/David Swanson

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From California to North Carolina, U.S. states face an ever-lengthening fire season, but firefighters fear unfilled vacancies will leave them short of hands to combat wildfires

  • Federal firefighters warn of vacancies as threats worsen

  • Forest Service says expects to have sufficient staffing

  • Pay and housing issues hurt retention, say firefighters

By David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With fire season approaching again in the drought-hit western United States, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, a senior U.S. Forest Service official, assured lawmakers this month that federal firefighting crews would be sufficiently staffed and ready for action.

"We will be at the capacity that we need," she told Congress, days before the government said the first three months of 2022 were the driest on record in parts of the West and predicted a "significant" risk of wildfires starting in May.

But federal firefighters on the frontlines of the climate-change-fueled blazes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that crews tasked with combating them are vastly understaffed this year - and fear sufficient help will not be coming soon.

Read more: Wildfires and climate change

Federal firefighters have been swapping stories via private chats and social media of undermanned stations, crumbling buildings and poorly maintained equipment.

Despite Hall-Rivera's assurances to Congress, an internal Forest Service report, dated March 2022 and obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noted "recruitment and retention" challenges.

Brian Gold, a federal firefighter in Colorado, said morale and staffing issues stemming from years of underfunding, pay parity concerns and decaying facilities and equipment presented "an existential threat to the federal wildland fire program."

Gold said he loves his job and does not see himself leaving anytime soon, but added that he was in a minority.

Many others are eyeing state or municipal jobs, which can offer better pay and benefits, or private sector opportunities.

Beyond concerns about safety, he said he worried that an inability to retain and recruit firefighters "is causing the fire program to crumble before my eyes."

The Biden administration has said it is working overtime to address such concerns and boost staffing. But informal reports from the field of too many unfilled jobs are widespread this year as states as far east as North Carolina face an ever-lengthening fire season.

"We're no longer in fire seasons – we're in a fire year," said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group. "Consequently, we really need to up our game and hire people and deploy people year-round."

LOW WAGES, LACK OF HOUSING

The U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior plan to increase permanent and temporary federal firefighter staffing from roughly 15,000 in 2021 to 16,700 this year to better respond to threats, a Forest Service spokesperson said.

Hall-Rivera, deputy chief for state and private forestry at the Forest Service, said qualified employees and contractors who are not categorized as full-time firefighters can also be surged into firefighting service if needed.

"We had upwards of 29,000 firefighters on the landscape last year during our highest levels of activity," she said, which would have included those additional staff brought in to help.

The agency spokesperson said the service takes seriously the challenge of hiring and retaining firefighters as fire seasons become increasingly long and complex.

But "we acknowledge that there is more work to do on issues such as housing and work-life balance in the very stressful fire years," the spokesperson said.

Many forest service employees say low wages and a lack of adequate housing in sometimes remote fire areas - where housing can be scarce or too expensive - make recruitment and retention difficult.

"It's probably the worst winter the wildland fire groups ever had as far as filling jobs," said one district fire management officer in the western United States who asked not to be named, adding that the situation was widespread.

An engine captain involved in temporary hiring in northern California indicated that almost all Forest Service forests in the area expected to have less than 65% of full staffing for firefighters this year, some below 50%, according to a federal firefighting source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An internal survey from the Forest Service's Region 5, which encompasses California, listed pay, poor housing, and a lack of flexibility in hiring as leading problems when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

"Vacancies in the program are not being filled in a timely manner and permanent long-term employees are leaving the Region 5 fire program," said the March 2022 internal report.

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters group has been collecting via social media examples of substandard housing and facilities, and understaffing among federal firefighters.

Firefighters have submitted dozens of complaints, from rodent-infested living quarters, to crumbling floors and inadequate plumbing.

Some firefighters described being forced into homelessness by low wages and inadequate housing.

"Fundamentally, people don't want to take jobs because they can't find a place to stay," Martin said.

The Forest Service spokesperson said it was trying to resolve such issues.

INFRASTRUCTURE PAY RAISE?

A new trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden in November includes $600 million to boost firefighter pay and convert seasonal firefighters to permanent, year-round employees.

Of the Forest Service's expected force of 11,300 firefighters, about 4,500 would be temporary, seasonal hires.

The Department of Interior is projected to have a capacity of 5,400 to bring the total to 16,700, the forest service spokesperson said, adding that for the first time this year the service expected to make more permanent than temporary hires.

Under the law, the Biden administration is also set to develop a new "wildland firefighter" job category.

Currently, those fighting wildland fires for the federal government are classified as "forestry technicians" - a technicality that can make it difficult to access benefits compared to state and municipal firefighters.

Changing that designation has been a longstanding goal of groups including Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

"The (law) remedies many issues that have been front and center for the wildland firefighting community," the Forest Service spokesperson said, adding the goal is to get pay increases under the law into paychecks by mid-year.

The administration has taken steps to ensure federal firefighters earn at least $15 an hour with bonuses and set a $15 wage floor for federal civilian employees.

Separately, the Labor Department this month announced a policy change intended to make it easier for federal firefighters to claim injury or illness benefits - a move that won swift praise from firefighter advocacy and union groups.

But many firefighters are skeptical about the effectiveness of legislative fixes.

Legislation to boost firefighter pay and benefits that is named after Tim Hart, a firefighter who died in June 2021 after being hurt while responding to a fire in New Mexico, is currently stalled in Congress.

One female wildland firefighter - who lives out of her camper in California to save on rent - said proposals to increase base pay would not make up for the lack of an attractive career path for more experienced firefighters.

"Just raising the wages for those coming into fire is not going to be enough to keep people around," she said, asking not to be named.

But as climate change drives more frequent and ferocious blazes, improving pay is vital, said Nathan Krugman, a wildland firefighter who fought the Caldor fire that burned more than 220,000 acres (89,000 hectares) out west last year.

"It's either people get paid more to do this job, or people don't do it at all," he said.

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro. Editing by Laurie Goering and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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