Congratulations to Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GWF) for being selected as one of the recipients for the 2021 Paul Gleason Lead by Example award. Three individuals and one group from across the wildland fire service have been chosen to receive this national award.
The award was created by the NWCG Leadership Committee to remember Paul Gleason’s contributions to the wildland fire service. During a career spanning five decades, Paul was a dedicated student of fire, a teacher of fire, and a leader of firefighters. The intent of this award is to recognize individuals or groups who exhibit this same spirit and who exemplify the wildland fire leadership values and principles. GWF’s work in support of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program has been a demonstration of motivation and vision.
The GWF organization is recognized for tirelessly advocating and lobbying legislators and members of the executive branch to create a better system of support for our valued federal firefighting resources. Their advocacy efforts have given a voice and face to the wildland firefighter, highlighting the challenges we face. Through it all, they have remained professional, never seeking credit, relaying simple facts, and respecting federal agencies during briefings and through press releases.
GWF is commended for successful efforts to establish a federal fire series, implement pay improvements, and bring about OWCP reform. These efforts are a welcome relief to a weary federal wildland fire service. Their vision through the Tim Hart Act, if enacted, would dramatically impact the wildland fire service in terms of pay, recruitment/retention, and the health and mental well-being of the federal wildland firefighter.
Today in a live online presentation to their firefighting personnel, the U.S. Forest Service (FS) gave an update on the status of the changes to their pay that are required in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that was passed in October.
It was presented over the course of an hour by Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief for State & Private Forestry and Brian Rhodes, Program Manager for Firefighter Series and Pay, and Human Resources.
Temporary pay supplement
Ms. Hall-Rivera said the pay supplement authorized by the legislation will hopefully begin appearing in paychecks in June. It will increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less. There is a finite amount of funds appropriated for this increase, $480 million which also includes funding for a few other purposes, so unless and until additional dollars are authorized by Congress it is considered temporary. They are hoping to avoid employees receiving a pay increase, followed by a pay cut, and finally the permanent pay increase later when the new job series and pay structure is implemented.
The calculation of the amount of each person’s supplement will not consider overtime — only base salary. A complicating factor is that the legislation restricts it to geographic areas in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter. In addition, decisions must be made about which positions will be affected.
“Our leadership intent is to have this applied as broadly as possible to as many firefighters as possible and to get it into paychecks hopefully in June, that is our goal,” said Ms. Hall-Rivera.
The FS is working with the Department of the Interior (DOI) and their four agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities to coordinate the identification of the geographic areas that will receive the pay supplement. It will be retroactive to the time the legislation was passed, which they have identified as October 1, 2021.
Different Firefighter job series and pay schedule
The Office of Personnel Management is sticking to the timeline they established in January and expect to issue their policy on a new job classification for a Wildland Firefighter occupational series by the end of the month. The legislation set a due date of May 13, 2022. Because of the time crunch, there will be little if any opportunity for the FS or the DOI to review the OPM’s product, but the union will be consulted. The hope is that the transition into a different series, expected to be GS-456, will be complete by the end of 2022 or near the beginning of 2023. Decisions will have to be made about which positions will be offered the opportunity to be in the Wildland Firefighter series.
Mr. Rhodes said moving to the series will likely include GS-462, possibly GS-401, and they will consider the GS-301 positions.
He said no one will be forced to move to the different series, but vacant and new positions will be in the Wildland Firefighter series. Firefighter retirement will not be affected by the transition.
The OPM allows agencies to request a special salary table. Ms. Hall-Rivera said that after all the requirements in the BIL are satisfied work will begin on assembling the data and recommendations of pay for the personnel in the Wildland Firefighter series. That is expected to begin in the late summer or fall. They will also request additional funding from Congress for the pay increase.
What will not be covered in the new pay structure
Mr. Rhodes said several issues were not authorized in the BIL and will not be covered in a new pay structure — portal to portal pay, funds to support of the cost of housing, and premium pay being included in calculation of retirement income.
Ms. Hall-Rivera began the presentation by recognizing that there has not been much information distributed to their 10,000+ firefighters about these pending changes, explaining that the BIL is complicated and they have been working hard to untangle its provisions.
“We were head down working and we didn’t pick our head up to share with all of you what was going on,” she said. “This is our opportunity to begin doing that more frequently…And I completely understand and acknowledge it is frustrating that [you may] wonder why it has taken so long. I know this impacts your choices about your career path. It impacts you and your family.”
Comment from the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
“While we are glad to finally see the OPM, USFS, and DOI agencies providing information on classification and pay, we are disappointed to see the OPM dusting off the 0456 series which was widely used in the 1970s/80s,” said Riva Duncan, Executive Secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “Going back is not a viable option for moving forward. This is not a “new” series, but one that didn’t meet the needs of federal wildland firefighters previously when the USFS sought new classification. Unless the OPM is making significant revisions to reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities of today’s wildland firefighters, and can adapt to the needs of both those with with and without degrees/certificates, it will not work.”
Featuring a fictional member of an inmate hand crew in California
Starting this fall wildland firefighters will have the dubious pleasure of watching their profession depicted in a television series on a major network. Fire Country is about a guy, Bode Donavan, who is in a California prison and signs up to serve on a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection inmate hand crew. It turns out that the camp where the crew is based is in his hometown, “The place where all his troubles began,” says the CBS description of the drama.
It is scheduled to air Fridays at 9/8 CT. I’m sure that real firefighters will enjoy picking it apart after it premieres.
In the trailer below, the fire scenes appear to be computer-generated imagery (CGI). Wildfire flames and smoke are some of the most difficult scenes to pull off successfully with CGI. It will be interesting to watch how well it is done. The best I have seen was in Only the Brave, about the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The Incident Management Team on the Mesquite Heat Fire 7 miles southwest of Abilene, Texas reports that it has burned 11,256 acres. The increase is due to more accurate mapping.
Active, open flame was reported Saturday morning on the eastern side of the fire although fire intensity was low. Minimal fire behavior is expected Sunday. However, fuels remain extremely dry and could support some moderate, low intensity growth.
Fire authorities have revised the number of homes destroyed from 27 to 20, with another 7 outbuildings destroyed.
Firefighters are focusing on the uncontained firelines along the north, west, and southern edges of the fire, assisted by heavy equipment.
Saturday at 8 a.m. the Southern Area Incident Management Gold Team assumed command led by Incident Commander Dave Martin and in unified command with the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office.
The Mesquite Heat Fire has destroyed approximately 27 homes 7 miles southwest of Abilene, Texas. Since it started May 17 alongside Highway 277 it has burned 7 miles to the northeast, consuming 9,613 acres during extreme weather conditions — temperature of 107 degrees, 10 percent relative humidity, and winds gusting to 30 mph.
Firefighters aided by aircraft kept it from spreading significantly Friday as unburned pockets of fuel flared up in the interior. Crews continued to construct containment line along the perimeter of the fire with a heavy focus on the southern flank in preparation for the predicted winds out of the north Saturday morning.
The Southern Geographic Area Incident Management Team #2 (Gold Team) is assigned. Resources on the fire Friday evening included 15 fire engines and 1 helicopter for a total of 59 personnel.
Friday evening evacuations were still in place with limited access for Country Place South to FM 89, South of FM 1235, Hillside Rd, Denton Valley Rd, Braune Rd and CR 297.
US Highway 277 reopened Friday night. The Taylor County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Facebook, “Several guardrails are only laying on the ground and reflective striping may not be visible or still present due to fire damage.”
The US Forest Service announced May 20 in a press release that a “pause” is in effect for all prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands. The reason given for the pause is “because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field…while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in the statement released late Friday afternoon.
The public statement from Chief Moore does not actually say in clear text why the review is being conducted, but the unmentioned elephant in the press release is the hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the weeks-long evacuation orders in New Mexico, some of it attributed to an escaped prescribed fire. However in an email sent to FS employees, the Chief wrote, “I’m sure you all have seen the stories in the news about recent prescribed burn escapes. These, as well as isolated incidents on other national forests in recent years, have made it imperative that we pause to review our processes. That’s why I am temporarily halting all prescribed burns on National Forest System lands and creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community.”
At least two prescribed fires escaped in New Mexico in April. The Hermits Peak Fire escaped from the Las Dispensas prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas on April 6. On April 22 it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire which was reported April 19 in the general area where another prescribed fire was ignited about three months earlier. Now a month after the Calf Canyon Fire was reported the FS is saying its cause is still under investigation.
The combined Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire is still spreading. It has burned more than 303,000 acres and destroyed 347 homes and 287 other structures. Another 16,316 structures are threatened and evacuations are still in effect. An estimated $95 million has been spent so far on suppression of the fire.
On April 7 a prescribed fire being conducted by the Bureau of Land Management about 10 miles southeast of Roswell, NM escaped and burned 1,900 acres.
On the Dixie National Forest in Utah the Left Fork Fire was reported May 9. On May 10 the Forest Service said it ignited from material still burning from a prescribed fire conducted April 7, 2022. On May 11, 12, and 13 the daily updates on the wildfire posted by the Dixie National Forest stated it was “human caused.” The escaped fire burned 97 acres.
On May 16 the Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests ignited the Simms Mesa prescribed fire, expected to treat 200 acres about 11 miles south of Montrose, Colorado. On May 19 a wildfire was reported in the area which was was given the name “Simms Fire”. Officially the cause is under investigation, but the Forest Service on May 19 wrote about the fire on Facebook, “Earlier in the week a prescribed burn was conducted in the vicinity which was monitored daily. The cause of the fire is under investigation.” Fire officials report that at least one home has been destroyed. Evacuations are in effect and Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 1 has been mobilized. Friday morning it had burned 371 acres.
“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” the statement from Chief Moore said. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”
The FS safely conducts about 4,500 prescribed fire projects each year on average, treating more than 1.4 million acres. Since most prescribed fires are conducted between September and May, the Forest Service expects the pause will have “minimal impact” on their goal of increasing fuels treatments by up to four times the current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments.
Issuing a press release late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the work week is a tactic sometimes chosen in hopes that the timing of the unfavorable information will minimize its negative impact.
Inciweb currently lists nine prescribed fire projects on Forest Service lands in various stages of planning or execution; there are likely more, since not all are entered at the website.
The four largest active wildfires in New Mexico all continued to grow Thursday and have burned a total of more than 476,000 acres. Red Flag Warnings are in effect Friday for winds gusting from 30 to 40 mph with single digit humidity.
The 303,701-acre Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire northwest of Las Vegas was subject to single digit humidity and strong winds Thursday afternoon, 10 to 20 mph with 30 to 40 mph gusts out of the west. Since the east side is somewhat secure most of the additional spread was limited to the west side, which experienced in some areas fire behavior described as “extreme, crowning, group torching, and spotting.”
The Black Fire 28 miles west-northwest of Truth or Consequences consumed more vegetation on the northwest, northeast, east, and southeast sides. Fire officials said in some places it spread for three miles, growing on the southeast side to within one or two miles of Hermosa. It has burned 104,969 acres.
Most of the spread of the 21,687-acre Bear Trap Fire 34 miles southwest of Socorro was on the south side Thursday. Hand crews are prepping and conducting tactical burning operations, some of which may be conducted by aerial ignition. Limited movement to the east off the San Mateo crest is expected due to non-continuous fuels in several recent fire scars.
The 45,605-acre Cerro Pelado Fire six miles southwest of Los Alamos has been relatively quiet for several days.