Opinion: A USFS firefighter in Oregon can be paid more at McDonald’s

A view from under a smokejumper canopy

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Boise BLM smokejumpers
Boise BLM smokejumpers. BLM photo by Carrie Bilbao July 28, 2020.

(This article first appeared at The Oregonian)

By Ben Elkind

I would almost do it for free. The feeling of complete focus and calm after jumping out of the airplane is hard to find elsewhere these days. But the chaos from life and the fire below are making me rethink my career, and that’s a big problem for Oregonians.

I’ve been a smokejumper for the US Forest Service for eight years and worked on the Mt. Hood Hotshot Fire Crew before that. I grew up in Oregon and can’t stand to see the wildfires ravaging our public lands and communities, while the smoke threatens our public health.

The Forest Service employs the largest firefighting force in the west, yet the agency refuses to rise to the challenge of climate change and the growing demand that increased fires, short-staffing and low pay presents for our workforce.

Vacancies throughout the west limit our firefighting ability. Fire engines sit idle and unstaffed in many parts of our state, and the number of “Type-II” incident management teams – charged with managing large fires around the northwest – has decreased from ten to seven since 2014. The teams that remain are short-staffed and spread thin. This is the obvious outcome in a profession that I’ve never heard anyone recommend to their children.

As the cost of living and home prices rise in the west, the Forest Service can no longer retain its employees when starting pay is $13.45 an hour. At the Lincoln City McDonalds, just west of Otis, another community nearly erased from the map by wildfires, a sign in the window advertised starting pay is $15 an hour. My wife joked that I should apply there for more job security. She’s right. A career with McDonald’s is currently more promising than federal wildland firefighting.

I’m an incident commander with advanced qualifications, supervising dozens of resources and fire crews on fires, yet I’ve never earned more than $20 an hour in my 14 years as a professional wildland firefighter. I make decisions that can cost millions of dollars with lives hanging in the balance, yet I am paid more like a teenager working a summer job than a highly experienced professional. Last summer, I trained someone from Seattle Fire who earned more in two weeks than I earned in a 6-month fire season.

The cost of paying living wages to our firefighter’s pales in comparison to the costs that devastating wildfires have on our state. The costs in Oregon from the 2020 fires alone are in the billions of dollars, and that doesn’t include the mental toll it took on our citizens. My pregnant wife was home with our toddler duct-taping paper towels on a fan to try and filter the smoke, while I was working on the fire that would burn from Warm Springs past Detroit and towards Portland.

I’ve personally seen the experience level drop rapidly on fires over the past decade as people find work that is more predictable, safer, and affords them a better work/life balance. This leads to higher fire costs simply because we aren’t as experienced at fighting fire as we used to be. When training costs are so high, retention is paramount to fiscal responsibility.

Prescribed burns and hazardous fuels reduction are buzz words politicians and media use, but the reality is that there aren’t people willing to take on that dangerous job anymore at $13.45 an hour. The limiting factor is staffing.

Fire season in 2021 is now underway in the drought-stricken western U.S., yet there have been no policy changes at the firefighting level, or legislatively.

Talking about wildfires, climate change, prescribed burning is great. But our citizens and firefighting workforce demand action. I ask for your help, to demand a better investment of our money, and to preserve what parts of Oregon we have left for future generations.

Smokejumpers. BLM photo.

Ben Elkind is a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service based out of Redmond.

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23 thoughts on “Opinion: A USFS firefighter in Oregon can be paid more at McDonald’s”

  1. As an old wildland firefighter and smokejumper myself, I couldn’t agree more. The pay to risk ratio has always been way off. It is beyond time to address the pay, work schedules and health concerns of wildland firefighters.
    Stay safe!

  2. And your fearless leader just said the FS does not need more funding for fighting wildfires.

  3. Why is the southwest forest service getting $17 plus. When the northwest is getting peanuts for wages.

    1. Southwest Region 5 likely has a higher population density than Northern California with 24 million people surrounding the Angeles National Forest. Northern California has some 15.8 million people, Central California some 7 million people, so there is a population density difference in regional fire fighting, and *perhaps* longer miles of urban/forest interface to deal with.

      Also watershed protection in Southern California is more complicated and somewhat more urgent than watershed protection in Northern California. I don’t know what percentage of water that So Cal gets from the Aqueduct and the Colorado River, but I would hazard to suggest that the San Gabriel Mountains provide more water to So Cal than the purchased / transported interstate water holds.

      So different regions have different requirements, it might not be too unusual to see pay rates being different.

  4. Ben, thank you for honesty and bravery for taking the step to publicly describe the plight you and so many of your colleagues are experiencing. Seriously- the starting pay for Wildland Firefighters is often less than minimum wage in many parts of the country. This is unacceptable and personally humiliating. The time has come to demand long over due reforms supporting personnel working as Wildland Firefighters. The American public and our senior leaders need to hear first hand stories from firefighters like Ben. To say our staffing, hiring and pay is dysfunctional and antiquated is an understatement. Classification, Pay and Benefits parity are reforms we are demanding with our elected officials and senior agency officials. A system of ‘forestry technicians’ who occasionally perform as ‘firefighters’ was set in place over 50 years ago. We now know this 50 year old personnel system could not have anticipated year round fire seasons, climate change, massive die off of trees and vegetation to insects, disease, drought and exponential housing growth into extreme fire danger landscapes. The demand for service placed on Wildland Firefighters is not abating; it is growing exponentially and placing firefighters in unsafe (physically and mentally) and untenable, no-win situations. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters was formed as an all volunteer group of current and past Wildland Firefighters. Visit our website if you are interested in knowing more about the reforms we are advocating for and to become part of our grassroots activism.

    1. When will the politicians wake up to the grossly underpaid federal fire fighters? We can spend trillions of dollars on the new green legislation, while we ignore the inequity of the current federal wildland firefighter pay schedule. In 1961 I started as a GS-2 at 1.71 per hour. Today 60 years later a GS-2 starts at 11.61.
      This is a travesty. The politicians need to wake up, or God forbid we vote them out of office.
      The recent testimony of the Chief saying everything was wonderful in regards to air tankers and fuels management was a joke. I think it may be time for her to retire.

      1. Based on the price of silver today your 1960 .25 cent piece is worth over $4.00 in todays fiat currency.

        Life sucks then you die.

  5. All of these comments to Ben’s GREAT article are RIGHT ON !

    Add to that, the Chief says her Agency doesn’t need any help or more money ?

    Well, I’ll leave you with a quote form our President, “ Come on guy, REALLY ! “

  6. Many good constructive comments, in my opinion. I too am “an old firefighter.” and worked on Type I teams. My heart lay with the Ops Chief or Line Boss (old term) position because that’s where critical on-the-fly decisions have to be made.
    Government (OPM controlled) firefighter wages are pathetically out of line with ALL other agencies (State, Federal, County, City); and it’s not just wages that are inconsistent with others.
    I would suggest your efforts be directed to the Secretaries of Agriculture (Vilsack) & Department of Interior for your demands for “equal pay.” This may eventually require a “class action lawsuit” to get their attention.
    Firefighters of all types deserve better because they RISK THEIR LIVES with every jump from an aircraft and every hour they are on a hot line defending property and resources.
    Members of the House Natural Resources Committee needs to DIRECT the Secretaries and OPM to take this matter up immediately.

  7. Excellent write up. I feel that he now will have a target on his back from agency leadership though. I’ve learned leadership doesn’t like when we speak the truth about problems in the agency.

  8. Another Sunday of waking up, pulling up wildfiretoday.com and spitting my coffee all over the wall. Insane.

  9. This.

    The agencies can brag all they want about the investments in technology, risk assessments and analytics, but what is notably absent is any of the agency heads talking about investing in the firefighters, er forestry and range technicians. No acknowledgement or recognition that successes in fire management are on the backs of the workforce. A woefully underpaid and unappreciated workforce.

  10. Great job Ben. Where to begin? The bloated government bureaucracy that has spent millions of dollars on inclusivity and diversity training while failing the citizens of the US and its employees with meaningful measures to improve either internally or externally? Or the fact that a GS3 makes 15% less in 2020 than in 2000 if you account for inflation? Let’s get on with reality and move fire and aviation management away from land management agencies so that the expert first responders and emergency incident managers can have an organization that recognizes the expertise required in the modern age of wildfire management. Maybe this agency could be truthful with the President’s budget commission and the members of Congress. The USFS wants us to be gardeners of the forest, pay us the wages of an entry level laborer and expect us to perform these roles likes it’s the 1980s because if we are firefighters it undermines their failing mission. Except of course when we die, then the we hear the Chief extolling the virtues of selfless wildland firefighters. A gardener dying on a western hillside under the auspices of a federal agency makes for a poor story. Separate fire and fuels (the budget already does in NFS and FAM budgets) in order to get a true accounting for our monstrous hazardous fuels issue. Create fully qualified fuels programs that don’t really on fire to meet targets. Pay young women and men comparable wages to the risky highly qualified expert blue collar jobs they are. It’s hard to imagine any company in the US paying a field leader $15 dollars an hour to make life and death decisions not to mention as Ben noted million dollar decisions. It’s clear the FS leadership cannot make these changes nor even come up with a meaningful committee to address the numerous challenges that face wildland firefighters. It will take congressional action. Keep the pressure on.

    1. The last thing we need is to take fire away from a land management prospective and think of ourselves only as first responders with every wildfire being an emergency. Fire on the ground needs to become as mundane as spring rains. The problem is society has been told they can build whatever they want wherever they want and do what ever they want in the woods regardless of the risk of fire. Historically we’ve said firefighters will take that risk down to acceptable levels for you so your cabin built in a saddle with a 100 year fuel loading will be just fine. For a long time that worked. With climate change on top of everything else it’s become untenable even if we get elite pay, status and all the equipment money could buy.

  11. I am SO GLAD I’m NOT working for that outfit (USFS) anymore!
    If I’d stayed any longer I would have been one of the casualties of bureaucracy.

  12. Mr. Gabbert,
    Please copy all of this and others like it directly to the White House. Ask readers to copy these comments and others to their own members of congress and senators. Look for one of the retired USFS, NPS, or BLM people who are tired of being pissed off about the pay and conditions of firefighters and are ready to do more about it. There are many out there who have the talent and skills to develop and organize online support from more citizens than Wildfire Today reaches. Warming will not get better, those willing to go out and take care of our cherished wildlands need more support.

  13. Thanks for all the kind words. Thanks Bill for posting my writing. I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me from leadership positions and offer support, even mentioning that Pay & Classification are hot topics amongst Fire and Aviation Management Leadership. But when I ask where the talks go the response is predictable: nowhere.

    Although I don’t think the issues are that complicated, they are shrouded in secrecy. How many vacancies are there? Dianne Feinstein wrote that there were over 600 in California alone last year. I’ve heard of many in both eastern and western Oregon. What engines are not staffed 7-days? Are we lowering the requirements for hiring due to lack of qualified applicants?

    This is all information that should be shared by our leaders and not shrouded in secrecy. If our leaders support the workforce and the mission then they should be transparent for all to see without having to do investigative journalism to figure it out.

    Suicides are a big problem, they often occur in the offseason, or are not reported to maintain benefits for the families left behind. But again, the secrecy hurts all of us as employees and makes change difficult.

    I tried to use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) this year when I was out-of-pay status and was told I was ineligible. I joined a webinar for employees only and the regional forester and regional fire chief were both on the call and they seemingly had no idea that employees out of pay status were not eligible for the program. I was literally hung up on by the counselor. I don’t blame them for not knowing, but at some point the mission has to be the people. If we can’t take care of the workforce, then the outward mission of protecting public lands, communities, infrastructure will surely fail.

    It’s a big deal to be in a leadership position in the Forest Service or BLM. You are entrusted with the most valuable thing of which an american citizen can claim ownership, our public lands. That Public Trust demands transparency and accountability. As a pretty informed employee, I couldn’t even name the USFS or BLM Fire Directors without googling them.

    I love my job, but it’s unsustainable currently. It’s time for the people that have the information to share that, make it public and lets talk about it. If people have the info, and still not care, well then OK. But asking legislators, citizens, and workers to make costly decisions without having the basic information is a breach of the public’s trust, and it’s unbecoming of such positions of national importance.

    I hope we can all commit to being more open and transparent with our public organizations.

    Thanks for letting me extend my 600 words a bit here in the comments.

  14. If federal wildland firefighters at all stages of their careers (let’s say GS-3 through GS-11) are paid better, will they be unwilling to grind out 1000 hour OT seasons? I can’t be the only one cynical enough to wonder if that is a consideration.

    1. I think last year was a sign of things to come. Pushing tours past 1039 hours “for Covid” was dangerously easy for the agency. Thanks to climate change we’re now at the point that 1039 hours often doesn’t cover the whole the fire season. I have no doubt we’ll just extend our benefit-less temps past that 5.975 months mark again every time fire season extends into the fall. Which will soon be every year. The pay raise we want is a better hourly rate. The pay raise we’re gonna get is 300 more hours of OT rammed down our throats.

  15. Well Hugh how bout we support each other. Lets not discount or be little the efforts being made by Grassroots, I know for a fact that they are in it for the long hall. FWFSA has got the right flank, Grassroots has got the left? Just a small example of possible collaboration. Its a big complex fire to put to bed, seems like we could use all the skilled personal available. Its not a game of softball or baseball, its a professional job with real life or death consequences.
    I currently work for the USFS on a Hotshot Crew, the folks I work with are very interested in improving things. Many of the folks I work for including my Forest Supervisor are most definitely on board to improve a few things. Your comments rubbed me hard the wrong way Hugh, lets work together. Next week the season starts and regardless of all the thigs wrong we will be serving the public in the most efficient manner possible. Thanks to everyone fighting to make this job more sustainable and better for those that come after us.

  16. I spent 38 years working for the USFS and NPS, had a good career, however the job, the work and the grind not all that great, oh yes of course there were great moments through out my career, but overall not so much. When I began I thought this will be okay until I figure out what i want to do with my life, when you are young you become enamored with the idea of TVL and fire, Then you get a little older and you take a hard look at every thing and realize that maybe I should have done something else with my life. I do not believe things will ever improve concerning pay and benefits, I used to think that they would improve, I guess we will see. When I was a GS-9 IHC Supt I used to think I am making good money but my family suffered, I would look at the kids pounding the ground and the money they made truly SHAMEFUL!
    I have discouraged both of my kids from pursuing a career in fire, i would not want that for them, they would be great at it, the cost is to great, so far I have been successful, I am afraid I will lose that battle with my daughter.
    I have great memories that I will cherish forever, but on the flip side I have memories that have scared me for life, it’s part of the whole experience.
    Obviously these issues concern all of us and its not specific to one geographical area, I am encouraged by those that are willing to go 2 more chains to tie this issue of pay in, you all deserve better, you really do.
    Lastly another fire season is here and while we can all agree we need change, let’s stay focused on the task at hand, everyone comes home……everyone…….

  17. I have seen fire crew pay rates published from 100 years ago where daily efforts were paid in pennies, and even 100 years ago even the most experienced fire crews were paid far below the pay that field hands were paid, and that was before Labor Unions helped create the Middle Class in the United States.

    Fire crews don’t seem to get paid very much, they’re like our nation’s public school teachers, they go the extra mile and pay for things out of their own pockets because they’re required for the job, yet they’re paid dismally.

    We have plenty of money to invade other countries and seize control of their mineral resources and to inflict dictatorships and fascism in other countries for short term and long term benefit to Wall Street, yet our nation’s last remaining heroes — school teachers, fire crews, EMTs, and nurses who do 80% of the medical work in this country — are paid poorly, far under livable wage, on the trembling edge of poverty wage, if even that much.

    Hopefully President Biden — and the rest of Congress — can get their act together, now that adults are back in charge, and get some of the Infrastructure funding needed to reduce fuels, address some of the billions in deferred maintenance on our pubic lands, and help address and mitigate the causes for human-caused fires.

    We have been seeing massive increases in the recreating public taking to their public lands to recreate, even as budgets are cut and what budgets remain are sent to fire suppression rather than fire mitigation, Recreation, and Resources. Maybe with the proposed Infrastructure bill pending we can see about getting all of our nation’s heroes at minimum brought up to living wage.

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