House committee hears testimony about wildland firefighting workforce reforms

Considered two bills, Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and, Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Representatives from the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Much of the two and a half hours of Wednesday’s hearing before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources about wildland firefighter pay, devolved into rants about vaccine mandates and forest management. However, quality time was still spent on enhancing the pay and benefits of firefighters and generally improving the working conditions and management of the fire suppression work force. The entire hearing can be viewed on YouTube.

The two bills being considered were H.R. 4274 Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and H.R. 5631 Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. Brief descriptions of the two bills are in the article we published October 26.

Two representatives from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters gave five-minute presentations in addition to their more detailed written testimony. Kelly Martin, President, was on scene in the hearing room, while Vice President Lucas Tanner Mayfield appeared virtually. They both presented their cases for passing the legislation to improve recruitment and retention of the work force and making changes that would allow firefighters to earn a living wage.

Two employees from the Administration also testified, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire. They were both asked, how many firefighters do you have? The answers were “a little over 10,000” in the FS and 5,300 in the DOI. In addition, a representative of the logging community was present, Matt Dias, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.

In response to a question about the breakdown of permanent and seasonal firefighters, Ms. Hall-Rivera said presently in the FS it is about 60 percent permanent and 40 percent seasonal, and the goal is to make it 80 percent permanent and 20 percent seasonal. She said the FS needs more firefighters, including those who are specialists in technology and analysis.

Ms. Hall-Rivera also mentioned a concept that was new to me until we published an article yesterday by former smokejumper John Culbertson who suggested hotshot crews grow from the present 20-person crews to 30, so that when 20 were deployed, 10 would remain at the base and go to their homes each night.

“We need to have larger crew sizes,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said, “so that people can take time off so they can rest and have a work/life balance. That’s going to mean we are going to need more firefighters.”

Rep. Katie Porter of California said,”As fires get bigger and more unpredictable at some point we’re just going to need more people. That’s just a fact.” She asked, “How many additional firefighters are we talking about, 100, or doubling the force from 10,000 to 20,000?”

Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have a number but she would get back to the committee with details.

Mr. Rupert from the DOI, when asked the same question, said, “We are in the middle of an assessment to really try to put good, solid numbers behind the optimal need.”

The written testimony from the Forest Service said three times that specific provisions in the proposed legislation would cause problems. For example,  increasing pay “will drastically reduce the number of firefighting personnel employed by the Forest Service.” And, establishing a Wildland Firefighter health database, a Wildland Firefighter mental health program, mental health leave, and a Wildland Firefighter presumption of illness policy, “will reduce the funding available for wildland fire suppression operations.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse asked if the temporary pay raise and awards for lower level firefighters this year helped with retention and recruitment.

“The incentives we put in place this year, they were a morale boost,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I know our firefighters appreciated them. It’s probably a little bit too soon to tell if they are having an impact on our firefighting work force this year, but these kinds of incentives and these kinds of reforms will have a positive impact, I believe.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Republicans make a statement at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, which was about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Democrats on the committee primarily spoke about and asked questions regarding the issues in the two pieces of legislation that were the topic of the hearing. Some of the Republicans also briefly mentioned those issues, but spent most of their time discussing vaccine mandates, forest management, and how they felt that wilderness areas and environmental laws restricted certain management activities. They emphasized their diversion tactic by sitting in front of five large posters that seemed to conflate firefighter safety with forest management or logging. Forest management can mean different things to different constituencies. It may be prescribed fire, thinning, and removing vegetation near communities, or, logging.

Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas asked about fuel treatments; “Can we make a difference with axes and shovels and rakes or is it going to have to be a large-scale mechanized planned-out approach?”

“[It] is the only way we’re going to get ahead of this and create safer communities and safer places for our firefighters to fight fires,” said Ms. Hall-Rivera. “We need strategically placed treatments, they need to be in the right places, and they need to be at the scale of the problem. Fires are out-pacing our fuels treatments, even the ones that are helping us. They’ve got to be larger and we’ve got to use all the tools in the tool box. That’s mechanical treatment, that’s herbicides, that’s chipping, that’s prescribed fire, and natural fire where it makes sense. We’ve got to have all the tools that are at our disposal to make a difference.”

“We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib brought up the issue of “homeless firefighters” who don’t make enough money to pay rent, so they live out of their cars.

Rep. Obernolte, said he is pro-vaccine but against vaccine mandates, which he said “…would really hamper our efforts over the next 12 months to fight wildfires. I feel that we might lose a substantial portion of our federal firefighting workforce.”

Ms. Martin said, “We in the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters haven’t heard the alarm, if you will, that there’s a lot of wildland firefighters that don’t want to take the vaccine. What we are hearing though is that there are people that are concerned who are in a work group that if someone is not vaccinated they may end up getting sick and then that whole entire crew is quarantined, they are not allowed to be deployed on fire assignments… also [would have] an impact on our response capabilities.”

In summing up the hearing, Ranking Member Russ Fulcher of Idaho said, “There is no question compensation is important. It is a critical part of any job and I’m not denying that in any way shape or form. I just don’t want to lose sight that the root problem we’re dealing with here on the ground is fuel load.”

One spectator at the hearing made a spectacle, by frequently being in the background of camera shots while wearing a torn face mask, constantly and vigorously chewing gum.

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms. President of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Kelly Martin, and in the background, someone chewing gum while wearing a torn face mask.

Congressional hearing scheduled for Oct. 27 about firefighter pay and job classification

Two pieces of legislation about wildland firefighters will be discussed

U. S. Capitol building
U. S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A hearing is scheduled in Washington, DC at 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday October 27, 2021 to discuss two pieces of legislation that would affect the pay and job classification of federal wildland firefighters.

The hearing before the House of Representatives Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands will be titled “Wildland Firefighting Workforce Reforms.”  Members of Congress will receive testimony on two bills:

  • H.R. 4274 Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act. (Rep. Zoe Lofgren). It would waive limitations on overtime and premium pay for wildland firefighters that affects higher level employees at the GS-12 and above level. If they work a certain number of overtime hours, they can now “max out”, after which they earn no more money. (The Wildfire Today article from Jan. 29, 2021 has more information about this bill.)
  • H.R. 5631 Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. (Rep. Joe Neguse). This bill has numerous provisions, including raising firefighter pay, creating a wildland firefighter job series, providing health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, housing stipends, and other items. (More details are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)

The full list of witnesses is not yet available but the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a group that participated in developing H.R. 5613, will be represented at the hearing by their President and Vice President, Kelly Martin and Luke Mayfield, respectively.

The committee’s web site has links to the written testimony of the witnesses.

A live stream should be available on YouTube when it begins at 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday.

Interviews with smokejumpers who left the program, most of them for local fire agency jobs

“The USFS and BLM has many career-focused employees working without a professional career environment”

smokejumper McCall
File photo, by McCall Smokejumper Base.

by John Culbertson

Wildland firefighter pay and work conditions are in the national dialog.  In the October 2021 issue of SMOKEJUMPER I commented that smokejumpers and hotshots that want better pay and benefits are finding jobs with local agencies.  I wondered what those who had recently taken these jobs thought. After talking it over with SMOKEJUMPER Editor Chuck Sheley, we agreed that for the public good a survey should be conducted and the results made available to the public and decision makers in addition to publishing this article in the April, 2022 issue of SMOKEJUMPER. 

To remain unbiased I used a fixed set of questions similar to those used in business when interviewing for needs or solutions.  The respondents were kept anonymous. 

Twenty ex-smokejumpers who worked at U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management bases were interviewed. Of those, 17 have left the federal government to take jobs with local agencies in Southern California and the Sierra Nevada. Three have transferred to other Forest Service fire management positions. All smokejumper bases were represented, as are all Southern California Counties with significant fire activity.  

Eight jumped within the last five years. Seven within the last ten years.  The other five jumped within the last twenty years and are in management positions. 

It has been a busy fire season and all were working when interviewed.  Ninety percent of those interviewed either got a call while we were interviewing, had just returned from a call or were on an overhead assignment.  Most interviews involved multiple phone calls, many over multiple days.  The persistence, positive attitude and cooperation of the jumpers has been remarkable. What I found has been both encouraging and surprising. 

The Smokejumpers averaged six years of crew experience prior to jumping for the Forest Service or BLM.  Experience includes Initial Attack crews (2IA or IA), Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) and Helitack crews.  Prior work with the Forest Service, BLM, NPS, state and local fire agency crews is represented in this survey.  

Contact with an ex-jumper, frequently a supervisor or fire manager was part of the path to jumping for almost all. 

Over half had taken a decrease in pay, GS grade or resigned an appointment in order to jump in the GS-5 rookie position. Most had been at crew overhead level and had an AA degree, professional certificate or higher.  Less than half were veterans. 

Years jumped averaged three.  There were two distinct groups.  About half jumped one or two seasons while the rest jumped three to six seasons with one significantly more.

All spoke highly of their smokejumper experience and prior hand crew experience. 

All expressed strong loyalty and hopes for the best for the Forest Service and BLM. Many expressed a patriotic belief in helping to take care of their country. Reference to conservation principles needed for forest management and the history of public lands was brought up by over half the jumpers. There was considerable expression of desire to not leave jumping or the agencies and concern for the future of jumping mixed with frank consideration of their own situation. 

Family needs and salary were intertwined as a subject most voiced as the top reason for leaving jumping with all but one respondent who voiced career development as his reason.  

Almost all had discussed leaving jumping in detail with a spouse, ex-spouse or significant other.  Time away on fire assignment, the need for significant overtime to support a family, desire to purchase a house, a stable location for family and schools, lack of employment opportunity for spouse in jumper towns and the lack of upward movement in the jumper organization or back at a home forest unit were all frequently cited as issues discussed. 

Seven hundred and fifty hours of overtime was the average families depended on while jumping.  Due to Federal pay structure, this equals about fifteen hundred hours away from home. Time away from family figured into this issue.

Job location was a factor for a spouse or significant other as it related to school choice, professional opportunity and home purchase. 

The majority of jumpers brought up professional development. There is little upward movement in the jump organization.  Career development, mentoring and interest in fire management were not given enough consideration by supervisors during evaluations and career counseling at the bases.  

Using jumping as a pathway to fire management was a desire of many.  About half the jumpers expressed a desire to work in a home forest unit in either fire management or on a district ranger path. 

Many had hope of a future in the Forest Service, BLM or NPS and were willing to compromise and receive less pay than local agencies to make this happen but were thwarted by the federal hiring system. A typical comment was that they received no replies to inquiry’s regarding positions with Federal Agencies. The centralized federal hiring and personnel management system was frequently mentioned as frustrating to deal with. 

An exception to this was jumpers on detail and one who sought out an apprentice program appointment. After leaving jumping, everyone in this group worked towards fire management positions within the Forest Service.  This took an average of six years moving between positions and physical locations. These jumpers showed considerable adaptability in taking on a Forest Service career, including postings to the Washington office and international assignments. All had purchased homes and carried that equity with them on assignment. 

For those taking local agency fire jobs, most mapped out a course and began a transition while still jumping.  This included completion of online college and fire academy classes and contact with potential employers.  The average transition time was three years with 60% taking transitional wildland fire or EMS jobs with local fire agencies.  

Those taking transitional jobs with local agencies on IA, vegetation management programs (VMP) and EMS crews all took on positions of responsibility such as lead, squad or foreman.  This allowed them to be available for interviews, become known locally and complete training classes such as fire academy or EMT classes. 

Many local agency fire managers assisted these jumpers in their transition to full time local agency fire jobs even when employment was found at another agency. For many, this filled the mentoring and career planning need they had not found at the jump base.   

Full time paramedic training and internship was a considerable undertaking. Three couples lived on the spouse’s earnings while the ex-jumper used savings from jumping to go through a year and a half of classes and internship. 

Department of Defense (DOD) fire employment was another avenue of transition.  Designation as a firefighter and DOD pay structure provided a living wage for a family without the lengthy overtime requirements cited above for the Forest Service and BLM.

With a few exceptions the local agency fire jobs required the smokejumper to go through the same highly competitive application and testing process with all other applicants.  Smokejumping was simply an added plus to meeting the education, academy, EMT, written and physical test requirements. Contact with local agency managers and local wildfire transition jobs also helped.  

Adapting to this process was noted as an adjustment by many.  In particular, interview skills were something that had to be developed. Once hired as firefighters the smokejumpers, like all recruits, had to meet stringent probationary requirements that included frequent testing and evaluation.  Pay structure during probation varied by agency but was greater than that received as a smokejumper. Average age on obtaining local agency probationary status was thirty-three with average interview age of thirty-seven.  

On completion of probation the new firefighters starting salary averaged about $80,000 plus significant benefits. The range of starting salary was $68,000 to $92,000. All noted the salary was sufficient to support the family without overtime.  

Adjustment to the new job was noted by most.  These adjustments were to the call load, witnessing human tragedy, sleeplessness, need to study, commuting and working with people that lacked the camaraderie of crew and smokejumpers the firefighters had worked with in the past. This was not a criticism but an acknowledgment of the reality of living in a fire station.  In some cases jumpers considered a return to a natural resource agency job for a simpler life although none did.  Discussion with a spouse or significant other was described as part of this process.

All noted the clear-cut mission and service to the public of local agencies.  

Some choose to compete for and take wildfire or vegetation management program related jobs within these local agencies.  Some aspect of vegetation management programs, prevention, IA crew, dozers and helicopter operations exist with many of the local agencies. After completion of probation some were able to return to their transitional crew in a leadership position. Multiple jumpers noted that local agency VMP and IA crews are both efficient and increasing in number. 

All noted the importance of the portal-to-portal pay structure with a huge factor being fewer hours spent away from home and simplicity of paperwork.  Local agency overtime is compensated on a portal-to-portal basis, be it for shift work, filling in at a station, short term call back to cover draw down or out of town assignment. 

While on probation all were used for out of town wildfire assignments with engine strike teams.  All were able to use their qualifications for overhead assignments on completion of probation and most interviewed had been on multiple extended attack and large fires this season as overhead or had occupied back fill positions at the station for the wildfire draw down.

Looking back at their smokejumper jobs, all felt improvement in pay was in order and this extended to their thoughts about crews in general.  Inconsistency of jumper use for Initial Attack between bases and agencies was noted by most. “Sitting on the ramp at PL5 (Highest national fire preparedness level),” was a repeated phrase.  This extended to winter work for those on some form of permanent status, “Sewing canteen covers (in the winter) is not meaningful work.”

All wanted the best for Federal wildland firefighters and many felt re-classification to firefighter from forestry tech was important.  Parity with state wildland agency pay was frequently mentioned as was looking at other Federal fire models such as DOD.

Flexibility in use of employment status and under utilization of existing appointments was mentioned by more than half the jumpers.  This related to both the need to retain jumpers that had other things to do during the winter such as ski patrolman as well as the needs of those that wanted permanent jobs and the importance of mentoring those that desired a return to the districts with fire management and district ranger tracks in mind. 

Jumpers that had advanced to management roles including those that returned to the Forest Service were particularly concerned with the potential use of solutions already available.  Making incremental but meaningful change kept coming up.  Retention of GS grade (or equivalent) and appointment status when training as a jumper was considered important.  Second year (GS-6) jumpers automatically receiving a 13 and 13 appointment (if they did not already come on board with one) and starting to accrue retirement and access to the TSP (Thrift savings) program were frequently mentioned as possible solutions.  All those now in management roles felt there was a strong need for local hiring and administration of personnel matters at the Forest, District and Program level.  This included local administration of injured firefighters. 

Frustration was frequently voiced over the encouragement of and even counseling jumpers on how to sign up for unemployment.  Jumpers wondered why that money was being wasted by the agencies on unemployment when so much could be done with the money by simply running programs that further employment and well being of crews. 

A repeated phrase in the interviews was that those that stay with jumping in the Forest Service feel stuck and not valued. 


What stood out to me on completion of these interviews was that these jumpers represent skilled, experienced and motivated of people with high agency loyalty and an outstanding positive outlook.  If I were seeking people to manage our National Forests and public lands, or any fire agency, I could not find better candidates.

Any loss to the agencies in training dollars and administrative costs when jumpers leave for other fire jobs is small in comparison to the loss of talent and initiative.

It is my opinion that the Forest Service and BLM are dealing with career-focused employee’s (in this case) and yet not providing a professional career environment for them to work in. Pay is one of several significant factors.

One could take a blunt view and say the Forest Service took a simple job and made it complicated with no net gain in efficiency.  Something seems wrong. And I think there is some truth to this as it relates to the work force and agency needs. I was left wondering what the Forest Service mission for jumpers is. 

My more pragmatic view is that with the exception of pay and a cumbersome personnel management system, things are OK.  Smart people within the Forest Service and BLM including the jumpers, Interagency Hotshot Crew overhead, and fire managers at the district and forest level, are working to make things better.  The Forest Service and BLM continue to attract talented motivated individuals that receive excellent training and experience and then go out into the world of fire and enrich many agencies efforts in this most important work.  For this the Forest Service and BLM should be proud.

* I want to note that in the process of tracking down jumpers I talked with a number of IHC and IA overhead as well as fire managers from many agencies.  Many expressed similar concerns and made thoughtful comments. I feel surveys of these highly skilled and experienced people would be meaningful to any agency seeking improvement.  There are many solutions and great strength in the diversity of thought I encountered.


This article is scheduled for the April, 2022 edition of Smokejumper magazine. It is published here with the permission of author John Culbertson and the magazine’s Managing Editor, Chuck Sheley.

Smokejumper interviewed for article in The Hill

Smokejumpers attack wildfire
Smokejumpers prepare to attack a wildfire. NIFC.

Martha Schoppe, a BLM smokejumper, was interviewed for an article that was published today in The Hill.

Here is the beginning of the piece:


“Longer, more intense wildfire seasons are taking a toll on both America’s forests and the people who risk their lives to protect them — but for many federal wildland firefighters, including the few women in their ranks, the camaraderie that comes with the job outweighs its physical and mental challenges.

“Martha Schoppe, an Idaho-based smokejumper for the Bureau of Land Management, said she values the trust she has built with her co-workers, as she and her team of eight parachute into a massive blaze.

“At 42, she has opted to not have kids and is one of only about a dozen women among around 400 American smokejumpers — an elite status she has found to be free of gender bias, as everyone goes “through the wringer” to survive training.

” ‘If you do, you’ve proven yourself,’ Schoppe told The Hill, noting that the jump itself, while exhilarating, is “literally three minutes.”

“ ‘Once we land on the ground, we’re just another firefighter,’ ” she said.

The awkward silence when the season ends

Lone Peak Hotshots
Lone Peak Hotshots. Screenshot from their 2020 video.

Wildland firefighters on crews that are often deployed on endless 14-day assignments far from home may become acclimated to the high energy adrenaline-fueled environment. They are part of a team working toward the same clear objective, constructing fireline, installing hose lays, or mopping up. The goal is usually very obvious, and when done they can look back and see what they accomplished while part of a group that over months together could complete each other’s sentences, know what each would do when faced with a pulse-elevating situation, or deal with boredom while waiting for a ride back to fire camp.

When the fire season is over, their environment goes through a metamorphose. Almost overnight they may find themselves with their spouse, significant other, children, parents, non-fire friends, or, alone — a completely different situation from the previous six months. Some firefighters adapt more easily than others. Those that don’t, may experience mental health issues and mild or severe depression. Spouses or children of the often-absent firefighter may also show symptoms.

In the last five years we have learned that the suicide rates of wildland firefighters is “astronomical”, according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017. It is high even when compared with structural firefighters, which is also higher than the general population.

As we approach the off season for wildland firefighters who are employed less than full time, if you know someone who seems very depressed, it is OK to ask them if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but that is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.

This video encourages that communication. (I’m told that some of the people in the video are YouTubers. It features Hannah Hart, Liza Koshy, Markiplier, Meredith Foster, Orion Carloto, Remi Cruz, Shannon Beveridge, Tyler Oakley, and Tyler Posey.)

Members of the military returning from deployment can also have difficulties readjusting to life back at home. A Department of Defense webpage has information on the subject that appears to be directed toward the spouse. Here is an excerpt.

“Depression and Suicide Prevention

“Depression can happen to anyone – resulting in long-term feelings that affect an individual’s mood and daily activities. Service members may be facing challenges during reintegration that seem completely overwhelming, but understanding the warning signs for depression and suicide can help you intervene and get the them the help that they need. Signs to be aware of include:

      • “A range of emotions and changes in personality, including repeated and intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness or pessimism
      • A loss of interest in life or hobbies and prolonged periods of crying or sleeping
      • Substance abuse or withdrawal from friends and family
      • Displays of emotional distress in online activity
      • Excessive feelings of guilt, shame or a sense of failure
      • Physical symptoms like weight loss or weight gain, decreased energy, headaches, digestive issues or back pain
      • Talking about dying or seeking information about death.”

 

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Flash flood watches in effect near recent wildfires in California

9:40 a.m. PDT Oct. 23, 2021

Flash flood watches and 2021 fires
Flash flood watches (green shaded areas), 8:37 a.m. PDT Oct. 23, 2021. The purple lines indicate the perimeters of fires in 2021.

The National Weather Service has issued numerous flash flood watches for areas near many of the recent California wildfires. Heavy rain could bring ash and debris flows to locations below recently burned areas. At 8:37 a.m. on Saturday the NWS had not listed any major flash flood warnings in Oregon or Washington.

The atmospheric river combined with a bomb cyclone are bringing massive amounts of precipitation to areas of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.

Precipitation accumulated California
Precipitation accumulated during the 48-hour period ending at 8:56 a.m. PDT Oct. 23, 2021. The purple lines indicate the perimeters of fires in 2021.

Precipitation accumulated over the 48-hour period ending at 8:56 a.m. PDT Oct. 23 showed approximately 1 to 2 inches near the Dixie Fire, one-half to 1 inch near the Caldor Fire, and 1 to 3 inches in northwestern California near the McCash, Monument, and River Fires. About 1 to 2 inches were recorded near the fires of 2020 in the Napa and Santa Rosa area, and up to 3 inches at the Doe and Hopkins Fires of 2020.

And more is on the way.

Predicted 72-hour cumulative precipitation and 2021 fires
Predicted 72-hour cumulative precipitation. The purple lines indicate the perimeters of fires in 2021.

The video below is an October 22 briefing from the National Weather Service about the storm system that is bringing heavy rain and mountain snow, along with the potential for urban flooding and ash and debris flows to recently burned areas.