(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 McDonald’s, 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 firefighters pales by comparison with 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 to filter the smoke, while I was working on the fire that would burn from Warm Springs past Detroit and toward Portland.
I’ve personally seen the experience level drop rapidly on fires over the past decade as people find work that is more predictable and 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 buzzwords 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.
Ben Elkind is a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service based out of Redmond.