In the oversight hearing today before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter spoke truth to power.
Riva Duncan, who recently retired from the Fire Staff Officer position on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, testified remotely about job classification, pay disparity, employee health and wellbeing, recruitment, size of the workforce, and fire seasons transforming into fire years.
You can watch a recording of the hearing at the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters website, or at the end of this article.
I have watched many Congressional hearings about wildland fire and the agencies that manage them, and this is the first time I can remember that a firefighter who had worked their way up from an entry level position and had not been tainted by serving time in the Washington Office, testified about firefighting conditions. In 2016 Kelly Martin, then Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, testified about sexual harassment, but she was not asked questions about pay, hiring, and retention.
Ms. Duncan, now the Executive Secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, submitted 13-pages of testimony, but the last portion of her five-minute opening oral remarks had a memorable impact on the politicians. Toward the end she choked up a little — you can probably guess which section provoked that response.
“I am not here to disparage the US Forest Service,” she said, bringing her formal remarks to a close. “These issues are larger than any one agency and will take complex, and expensive, solutions. It truly was my honor to serve the US Forest Service and the American people. I loved working in fire, but I love the people I worked with even more. I have grown weary of losing amazing friends and colleagues, and I have grown impatient with inaction. The US is burning, wildland firefighters are struggling, and some are even dying. The time for reform is now. Thank you.”
Not only were her words powerful, but her delivery got the attention of the politicians — a category of humans not generally known for their compassion and empathy. During the rest of the hearing many of the Representatives used a little of their allotted time to tell her how much they appreciated her participation.
“I want to thank you for your testimony and your service, said Rep. Joe Neguse (CO), Chair of the Subcommittee. “It’s incredibly powerful and certainly resonated with me and every member of our committee on both sides of the aisle.”
In her written testimony Ms. Duncan said, “Our inability to hire and retain wildland firefighters has become readily apparent with record setting fire management vacancy rates through the federal service. Hiring managers are finding themselves unable to fill empty positions, and lacking compensation is a primary contributing factor.”
The hearing was titled, Wildfire in a Warming World: Opportunities to Improve Community Collaboration, Climate Resilience, and Workforce Capacity.
Chairperson Neguse began the hearing by proposing a new “Climate Corps to address immediate restoration needs and create rural jobs… a pipeline for careers in land management and conservation.”
“We need more well paid, permanent opportunities to grow the federal land management workforce,” the Chairperson continued. “As the budget has shifted toward wildfire suppression, there has been a corresponding reduction in non-fire personnel costing us land managers, biologists, other scientists with the expertise for planning for fire to improve the resiliency of the landscape in the first place… While the fire funding fix ended the practice of fire borrowing it did virtually nothing to improve the health care, pay, or general well being of those on the front line of these climate-driven disasters — our Federal wildland firefighters.”
Rashida Tlaib (MI) asked about pay and transitioning to a full time workforce.
Ms. Duncan replied in part, “We can’t fix anything around the fire workforce without adequate pay, a decent living wage.” Later she talked about how funding has been cut across the Forest Service, not just in fire.
Rep. Tlaib said, “I truly believe it is unacceptable that we are asking Federal wildland firefighters to protect the vast territories for just pennies on the dollar and I’m hoping that we can take action in this committee to raise pay and benefits to support our firefighters as the professionals that they are.”
One Representative has a wildland fire background
“I know wildland firefighting well, said Rep. Teresa Fernandez (NM). “I was the first young woman hired to assist the State of New Mexico Forest Service during fire season. All five of my brothers fought forest fires. As noted earlier there is no such thing as fire season anymore.”
When Rep. Fernandez asked what Congress can do to help, Ms. Duncan did not pull any punches and laid the responsibility where it rightly lies– with the people she was testifying to and their colleagues:
“We really need legislators like you all and the administration to take the lead to pass real meaningful reform to make these agencies work with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget to work very directly and quickly to move forward with a new [job] series and then tie additional pay to that,” Ms Ducan said. “I think most people would be shocked to know an entry level wildland firefighter makes less than $14 an hour. That’s embarrassing and it’s amazing what these people, who risk their lives, make for a living. It’s a travesty.”
Why would anyone want to be a Federal wildland firefighter?
Rep. Katie Porter (CA) asked Ms. Duncan: “Why would anyone want to be a Federal firefighter and get paid $13.45, below what we have been pressing for as the minimum wage for jobs that don’t require the kind of training and risk to your person? Why would anyone become a federal firefighter instead of a state firefighter where the pay is nearly double?”
“That’s the million-dollar question and we’re struggling to hire people now into those entry level positions”, Ms. Duncan replied. “We’re struggling to staff our engines and our crews because of that. For some of them it’s a summer job, to put themselves through college. They’ve grown up in a community where there is a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office, so it’s an easy jump for them to get into that. But they get bit by the fire bug, they love the career, and then find themselves making it difficult to meet financial goals.”
“Let’s get the classification going”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, chair of the full Natural Resources Committee said to Ms. Duncan, “We [have been] working on legislation in a couple of Congresses now on reclassifying our Forestry Technicians into Wildland Firefighters… Let’s get some more folks on board and get it through this time. Let’s get the classification going and then we can start remedying the pay schedule as well, too. So I think, one step at a time around here.”
After talking about efficiencies in the federal agencies, he told Ms. Duncan, “Please contact our office with ideas. We’re just trying to find ways to move more effectively within the law or change the law where needed. Because we want to be streamlined in what needs to be done.
Of course it was not all about firefighters. Courtney Schultz, an Associate Professor for Forest and Natural Resource Policy told the committee, “In addition to supporting agency research, Congress should consider restoring full funding for the Joint Fire Science Program, the biggest and most effective program that addresses agencies’ priorities for fire research.”
Later Ms. Schultz said capacity is the greatest barrier to making progress in fuel management.
Several of the Representatives mentioned reducing or eliminating regulations to make conducting projects easier.
Should local government or industry manage National Forests?
Rep. Tom Tiffany (WI) said we have too much preservation: “I think we have a fundamental question here between management and preservation and the west has suffered under preservation for about the last three decades.”
He asked one of the other panelists, California rancher Dave Daley, about local management of National Forests — “Would local government or industry be more successful in managing these wildfire risks and just managing the resources generally?”
Mr. Daley talked about the Good Neighbor Authority which allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with state agencies to do forest management work on National Forests, saying it has been used in California.
Rep. Tom McClintock (CA) used all of his allotted time to talk about the benefits of logging. He did not ask any questions.
Rep. Blake Moore (UT) emphasized the importance of post-fire management.
The video of the hearing below should be cued up to begin about 10 seconds before Ms. Duncan’s opening remarks. If it does not start there, you can skip to 36:00.