BY JEFF RUPERT
The nature of wildfire and the risks associated with it have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In most areas the window in which wildfires traditionally occur has grown from five to seven months of the year. Taking regional differences into account—California, Florida, and Montana burn at different times of the year—we no longer have “fire seasons” in the United States. We have “fire years.”
These changes are compounded by how much fires have grown. The average number of acres burned by decade is double what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Over that same time span, the wildland urban interface—those bits of land that blend housing and the natural, burnable world—has grown by 40%, putting more far more people at risk to wildfire.
Land managers around the world face significant challenges. The recent wildfires in Australia illustrate the gravity of the situation and the tremendous risk to communities. People in California continue to recover from wildfires that claimed lives and homes. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said earlier this year, “This is an issue that impacts the whole country, and we’re looking broadly at what we can do to reduce wildfire risk.”
The Department of the Interior recruits a workforce of thousands to manage wildland fire on public and Tribal lands across the country. Most of these people work in temporary appointments limited to six months. But if fires are no longer seasonal, should our workforce be?
The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a proposal to greatly expand and stabilize the wildland fire workforce. It calls for a $50 million increase to fund an additional 601 full-time equivalents*, converting many of our temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. This funding would provide over one million additional labor hours every year, enabling us to respond to wildfires during peak periods and complete active vegetation management projects like prescribed fires during times of low fire activity.
Expanding our cadre of permanent employees builds resiliency and sustainability into our programs. On average, temporary seasonal employees remain on the job two years, while career seasonal employees serve an average of 14 years. Constantly hiring and training new people is not only expensive, it robs us of the experienced, knowledgeable, senior firefighters we so desperately need.
Establishing career appointment positions also provides firefighters a reliable income and year-round benefits like access to healthcare and support organizations. Firefighters deserve these things given the tasks that lie ahead for all of us.
*Full-time equivalent (or FTE) is the annual number of “work years” produced by employees. A “work year” is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.
Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).