Fire leadership is concerned about the decreasing number of firefighters in the fall months

Strategies are being suggested to mitigate the shortage

Elkhorn Fire, September 3, 2020
Elkhorn Fire, September 3, 2020. Photo by Mike McMillan.

As we move into the fall months Federal fire officials at the national level are expressing concerns about how students leaving and tours of duty ending will affect the availability of firefighting resources. Today September 16 there are over 31,000 personnel nationwide working on wildfires. That is an extremely high number that has not been reached often and will be difficult to maintain if the present rate of wildfire activity continues.

In August when all hands should have been on deck, there were, and still are, severe shortages of engines and hand crews. Many fires organizations have been trying to suppress fires larger than 10,000 acres with about 20 percent of the resources they would normally have on a similar fire, back in the old days of, say 2019. Incident Management Teams were also in short supply. A Type 2 Incident Management Team from the eastern United States was assigned to a large, very complex fire threatening thousands of homes in southern California. (They may have done a great job, but it was unusual.)

As a step toward confronting the problem, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group issued a memo dated September 15 suggesting some strategies to mitigate an even worse possible shortage of firefighters in the coming weeks and months.

It is a lengthy letter, but here is a very condensed version of some of their suggestions for local units:

  • Hunt for additional funds to extend employees’ tours of duty.
  • As students leave for school, combine hand crews and engine crews to fill empty spots.
  • Many Incident Management Teams disband for the season; combine what’s left from multiple teams.
  • As contract periods for aircraft used by smokejumpers and helicopters end, assemble the jumpers and helitack personnel into hand crews, fire suppression modules, or have them be available for single resource assignments.

The memo had a list of attachments which were not available to Wildfire Today that appear to offer temporary exceptions to regulations about time and employment limits. We were not able find any information about additional funding.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

23 thoughts on “Fire leadership is concerned about the decreasing number of firefighters in the fall months”

    1. Hey Jim !

      Need national ‘Fire Authority’ with year round resources available- ‘off season ‘ training, project work, disaster work… the US could and should male this a priority- move all fed / state fire staff into roles that cover all states …. maybe not simple – put part time resources just is a thing of the past!
      Hope all is well with you ! John R6 .

  1. Wow so there is a shortage of workers? Maybe start paying a market rate. Most Forestry Technicians I know are so burned out after 6 months and would like to see their families, but I guess the government wants more blood. People keep quitting and experience, knowledge and skills are lost to other higher paying jobs.

    Hell, I can make more building fences around my neighborhood and picking up odd jobs than I can working shoulder season for base wages or even 12 hour days.

    Time to put up or shut up, pay a wage comparable to agency cooperators, or one where our spouses don’t have to work as much so we can be free to fight fires without the mental strain.

    A guy on Seattle Fire told me he makes as much on a 2-week assignment as I make in 6 months of base wages. I’m a GS 6, HEQB, FELB, CRWB and I’m getting laid off in a week. Someone else can do it.

    1. You nailed it, man. We FAIL the young men and women that do the bulk of the work. I have a harder time every year looking myself in the mirror for how our seasonal and temp workforce get treated.

  2. Funding problem’s were know months ago!! Now it’s here and it is ugly!! Mother nature will have to resolve some of these Fire’s!! Go home alive Firefighters!!🇺🇸🚒🇺🇸

  3. The Forest Service has about $4.5 billion available this year from appropriations and reserve accounts. It’s not a money problem. It’s finding willing personnel and changing the personnel rules and color of the money to allow them to spend it. It’s a tough problem. They could ask the Forestry schools to modify semester requirements so Forestry and other natural resources students could extend through November.

  4. Many firefighters hunt, and at the end of a busy season, that may be a higher priority than another assignment or 2. Many also travel internationally in the winter- with COVID-19 drastically limiting that, some may be taking time off now to travel domestically. Cumulative fatigue and burnout are real, and balancing taking care of yourself and your family with a demanding, high stakes job is going to look different for folks at different places in their lives and careers. I personally don’t want my fellow firefighters to feel pressured, when this is a much bigger problem that will take a systematic solution.

  5. Hire 30 “Forestry Technicians” for each Hot Shot crew. Detail a couple out and loose a few to hiring issues. Respond to fires with ~25. With those numbers you could then take vacation in the middle of the summer, others could hunt in he fall and still run a effective crew. Then use a type 6 engine as a chase truck. Here is where it gets pie in the sky, drag a dozer behind a water tender. Show up as a cohesive well working task force. You could probably do a rx burn mod out of the same crew in the winter. Or do nothing I get laid off in a few weeks!

  6. FERS retirees are capped on how much they can make before their supplement or social security is reduced. This is not conducive to staffing.

  7. I am a firefighter currently serving in Oregon. I dont want to let my crew down but I am thinking about going home after this run. I sincerely love this job and the excitement but it doesnt pay enough! Back home I can make the same money climbing trees 5 days a week, and still go home at night, sleep in a bed, eat a good dinner with my wife. Am I being selfish here?

    1. No you aren’t being selfish. The phrase I keep hearing is that the system “isn’t broken enough.” People need to stick to their tours, not work themselves into the ground and really get the system totally broken. It’s the only way we will see higher wages and decent treatment from management.

      Take care of yourself. Trust me, they don’t care about us.

    2. No, you are not being selfish. I keep hearing from higher ups that the system “isn’t broken enough.” So stick to your tour, don’t give them the extra work and really let the system crumble. It’s the only way to get fair wages and benefits.

      Take care of yourself. Trust me, they don’t care about us.

  8. I find it interesting how “leadership” is perplexed by the shortages of personnel, and lose of the experience base, yet at the same time, the fed agencies are making it more difficult for there to be an AD militia. Bill, I think it would be an interesting exercise to find out from the Forest Service how many forests are still sponsoring ADs as compared say to 20 years ago. From what I’ve heard in my region, there is only one or two forests still sponsoring, and those only a small number of people.

  9. In 1959 I was a student member of a timber survey crew estalishing permanent growth and mortality plots that would be remeasured evetry decade to provide better growth data. On the last Friday we spotted a smoke column north of us and when we returned to the station we were dispatched to work with some logging and mill crew members. Fire camp was in an open sage brush sheep gathering ground. so as the day warmed, whenever we stuck our heads out of our paper sleeping bags, we were covered with flies. I don’t think I got more than two hours sleep any day for the next week when we were shifted to day shift after a chance to take a cold shower at the local ranger station barracks. During the remainder of my career after completing Forestry School every employee had a fire assignment, and we could earn no more than the Regional Forester’s regular salary in a two week pay period. 15 years later it was normal to see a chart showing how many hours one could work epending on pay grade and step before maxing out meaning you worked for free from then on until you were released to go home. Fortunately that was changed I was told after I retired.

    As a Fire Information Officer during my last decade of fire assignments it was not unusal to be up for the morning briefing to update my colleagues in the Fire Information Center preferably before the media began calling. So there could be updates for the media, and in some cases local residents, I did not go to bed before checking with the Plans Chief or Incident Commander on what was likely for the next day, as well as keeping bulletin boards updated at several fire camps in one isolated location. When working in the Fire Info Center, handling a wide variety of calls, you had to be creative given communication limitations with Fire Camp, and I learned to make friends with the Fire Dispatchers to keep the information sheets in the room where up to 8 of us would work large fires up to date. On a fire on the Los Padres as fire had reached the ridge above Santa Barbara, at least half the alls were from residents closest to the fires, calling to ask if they should leave or move out their animals and woul evening winds bring the fire into town as had often occurred. All questions for which there was no satisfactory answer, even if it was the right one. Before and after each shift of 12 hours I had to eat breakfast in a local cafe before checking in and dinner after the end of my shift and walk a mile to the motel where I stayed. Yes, a motel, but the lowest rates were $70/night and per diem was topped at $75 across the country. I know I did not experience the same physical effort as when I was on the fireline, but there is a mental strain both on the job and wondering about how your regular job is going with you gone from your main post and maybe your subordinates, also during a major fire season.

    I cannot imagine how anyone works a 24 hour shift today without being a increasing risk every shift from both physical and mental exhaustion. And to classify firefighters with the smae pay grades as Recreation and Timber or Wildlife Technicians is grossly unfair. It’s time to recognize that fire management is a year round job as nationally fire seasons begin in late winter in the SE and keep moving across the southern states and then northward. The failuyre of agency leaders to be more aggressive in seeking funds for planning and implementing prescribed burns is resulting in a nearly impossible job, hat will be even more difficult as crews numbers diminish as students return to school career employees wiwth fixed pay periods are let go.

    I am sutprised there have not been more firefighter deaths as massive fires take control and take weeks to contain. Even when they are we’ve been having new blazes erupt for several months now, putting fire fighters in a position not unlike fighting in a war where there’s little rest. That’s when tragedies happen.

  10. It’s really a simple fix. Make it the federal wildland firefighter a professional organization.

    Pay portal to portal. Put everyone through an academy. Pay better. Better schedule. Hire better people. Get better facilities. Get people qual’d. Stop the hazing. Enforce fitness standards. Stop the bro-culture.

    It’s not hard. I learned pretty quick that not only was I not appreciated as a grunt with a college degree (aka extreme hazing), but I could take my knowledge somewhere else less exciting and make a butt-load more money in air conditioning and an office chair. I use my skills now to optimize fire department responses and operations, and that is much more appreciated on the structure side.

  11. There are a number of FFT2s in the Northeast Region who can’t go out West due to the shortage of crew bosses. Send us, we’d love to help out.

  12. I’ve posted elsewhere my suggestion for addressing this exact problem so I won’t repeat it here but the short answer is that it will take a big solution to solve it.

    I’ve got students who are missing Fall semester because their supervisors are strong-arming them into staying on duty. It will set them back a year in their education but they don’t feel like they can say “No” at this stage in their careers.

  13. The FD my brother works at requires all members to be red carded now (I tried to accomplish this a decade ago but got laughed at). They have one guy out in Oregon and it is only because he is using vacation and trade time to go. They are trying to extend him but he is almost out of vacation. When I worked there a decade ago I would do the same thing. If the feds dont have enough people they could incentivize FDs around the country to send personnel.

  14. Two of the guys I work with are out one is in California the other in Oregon.The one in California is sleeping in a tent and hasn’t taken a shower in eight days what kinda BS is this no facilities for proper hygiene in this COVID – 19 environment and we just got a Email begging for us to come to California you could pay me $100 a hour and I still wouldn’t come……Oh Yeah the guy in Oregon has his own hotel room every night.

  15. Two guys I work with are out one in California and the other in Oregon the one in California is sleeping in a tent and hasn’t taken a shower in eight days what kinda treatment is this no facilities in the COVID -19 environment and we just got a Email begging us to go on deployment they could pay me a $100 a hour and I still wouldn’t go……and the guy in Oregon has his own hotel room.

  16. Oh my goodness! We could never have foreseen that our “temporary” workforce would get smaller after they all get TERMINATED at the end of their 1039. I hope they come back next year for another “temporary” appointment. Why are we having so much trouble retaining people?

    This is total crap! The Forest Service and the DOI have abused their ability to fill seats in the truck with “temporary” employees for too long. For gods sake there were congressional hearings A DECADE AGO on this very subject.

    Here’s an idea, USFS/DOI leadership: stop hiring temporary employees. You want seasonal folks? Fine. There’s a permanent tour of duty to fill that roll. 13/13 anyone? Stop abusing your people! Hire FIREFIGHTERS, and have the integrity to call them firefighters. Not just when they die working to fulfill their “temporary” appointment, but when you hire them. So what if you “had to do it when I started”? Grow up. Lead. Make changes to this broken system. It is time for this to end. This is a solveable problem. Leadership just needs the fortitude to address it. Come on already.

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