The future of wildfire: a year-round challenge requires a year-round workforce

Seasonal firefighter positions need to be converted to career seasonal or full-time permanents

firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada. The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 calls for a $50 million increase to hire more firefighters, converting many temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. (Photo courtesy BLM Nevada)

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).

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9 thoughts on “The future of wildfire: a year-round challenge requires a year-round workforce”

  1. I would not support encumbering more agency discretionary money by filling hundreds of permanent firefighter slots with all of the salary burden and entitlements of full government employment without a dramatic change in current Wildfire-Use policies. Our fires are bigger and more expensive because we are using applied wildfire to manage natural resources. We have neither environmental documentation nor records of decision allowing that activity and no one has detailed the environmental consequences of burning our forests to ruin. To add insult to injury, the Forest Service is claiming burned acres in wildfires to fuels management acres every year, using Congressionally appropriated WFM money to do resource management. That’s illegal. The agencies’ new firefighting policies of “using unplanned fire in the right place at the right time” to “reintroduce fire to fire-depleted ecosystems” is the main driver in the past 20 years to wildly increasing fire size and fire suppression costs. My company and I are in multiple litigations and tort claims against the United States for their unfettered and cynical new natural resource management scheme. So, no more firefighters until we fix the core policy problems that are driving the out-of-control fire situation. The exception, of course, is much of California where CalFire fights fire in a no-holds-barred 10 a.m. style to put fires out. The Forest Service will be required to follow suit this year due to pressure from Congress in hearings last month. I predict acres will be down and so will expenditures.

    1. “The exception, of course, is much of California where CalFire fights fire in a no-holds-barred 10 a.m. style to put fires out. The Forest Service will be required to follow suit this year due to pressure from Congress in hearings last month. I predict acres will be down and so will expenditures.”

      The exception to everything you state is of course….Covid-19

      If, as you say, acres will be down, you aren’t taking into account, lack of resources to fight this years fires, some states, agencies, departments are saying that unless it is burning into the WUI, or other critical infrastructure, they will plan on letting it burn. Risk vs reward in these times has changed and the risks are higher then ever.

      Although I applaud the request for $50 million and more FTEs, and that the agencies are looking to the future, I truly wish they would look to the present and get the plans in place for NOW.
      Direction is needed for this fire season that is already here….we need to make sure that those of us on the front line of fighting fire have some assurance of safety from the Covid19 virus.
      So far, nothing.
      At least some of us are talking amongst our fellow friends, contacts and associates in trying to come up with plans and sharing ideas on how to protect each other…
      As Bill posted earlier today….nationwide testing of all needs to happen, NOW

      Stay well. Check on each other

    2. So if I understand what you are trying to say, using Congressionally appropriated WFM money for enviromental targets is illegal? But enviromental targets by fuels reduction is in the scope of that money. It falls under ‘Other Fire Operations: Hazardous Fuels Management’. It is right under prepardness and suppression. It isnt a shoot from the hip decision to decide if the fire or part of a fire is ‘wildfire use’, there is a written document before hand and what fire conditions would meet targets.
      I recomend doing a FOIA request for wildfire use burn plan in whatever area you may be interested in.

    3. Sure ever increasing temperatures that lengthen fire seasons, record numbers of people moving into previously wild areas (the WUI problem), drought and the fuels situation (caused by over a 100 years of fire suppression I might add) have nothing to do with larger fires. So much easier to just blame a single factor instead of taking the hard medicine that we need to spend billions more on fuel reduction amongst other things. So many places are tinderboxes right now that no matter how aggressively you IA some fires are going to get big and they are going to be catastrophic. Especially if we don’t deal with the WUI situation with smarter zoning. Addressing the problem requires action at the federal, state and local levels as everyone owns a part of it.

    4. Interesting your comment of “My company and I are in multiple litigations and tort claims against the United States for their unfettered and cynical new natural resource management scheme. “. Sets the tone of your writing. Looking at what your company does is not surprising your stance.

      Many of our forests are not healthy. They are overstocked, subject to disease and insect damage. Some fire dependent forests are in poor health do to lack of fire. WUI adds another fuel factor to the firefighter equation. Have not some Forest Plans been updated to address NEPA requirements and the use of fire?

  2. Politics aside, its nice to see a leader put effort into building resiliency and addressing a shortage and lack of benefits for employees at the bottom of the pay scales. Typical wildland firefighters (forestry technicians more specifically) work 14 days on and 2 off, for months at a time, they do this to staff modules that lack personnel. It is typical to work around 600 to 1000 hours of overtime in a season. That’s almost half a extra year of work for every year, to put it more bluntly were tired.

  3. Without significant changes in schedules and play more people is going to be just more people. It makes no sense to work 0930-1800 when 1/3 of the calls are before or after those hours. Portal to portal might bring fed firefighters into alignment with cost of living. Sad to have full time gov employees on WIC and food stamps. Maybe it’s time to look at schedules that allow for night duty compensation perhaps it’s time for 24 hour shifts. Give people back their personal time and staff for the need.

    1. 100% agree. It’s a heck of a lot less efficient to send everyone home at 1800 only to call them back as soon as they walk in their front door for a fire that started at 1900, and have a delayed response. Let our off time be our off time and staff our stations 24/7 so we can actually respond quickly. If we did 24hr staffing we may only be able to staff engines with 3-4 people at a time but I still think it would be better to respond immediately with 3 than responding late with 5 people (and better physical distancing too).

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