A senior-level wildfire management person in the U.S. Forest Service (FS) told Wildfire Today that there are hundreds of vacant permanent firefighting positions in California. The agency’s difficulties in recruiting and hiring seasonal and permanent firefighting personnel has resulted in multiple hotshot crews not qualifying to respond to a fire with 18 personnel, the minimum required by interagency standards.
More than a dozen FS fire engines in the state are completely unstaffed, or instead of seven days a week coverage they have cut back to only five. (Check with your local fire department and ask which days of the week they staff their fire engines.) Thirty modules of FS hand crews, dozers, or water tenders in California have been shut down due to a shortage of employees, according to our source.
(Read more: Forest Service issues statement saying in part, “Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States.”)
The personnel issues are caused by two primary factors, difficulty in hiring, and experienced firefighters leaving the organization for better pay and working conditions.
Seasonal federal firefighters in California are generally hired in January and start working in mid-May or mid-June. The centralized hiring process now being used has been heavily criticized as inefficient.
A look at the system for advertising vacant permanent firefighting positions in the federal agencies, USA JOBS, shows a large number of unfilled FS positions. Here is a sample from this week:
- Supervisory Forestry Technician, Fire, GS-7-8, USFS, 43 locations.
- Supervisory Forestry Technician, Interagency Hotshot Crew Superintendent, GS-9, USFS, 43 locations.
- Forestry Technician, hand crew, GS-7, USFS, 17 locations.
- Fire Prevention Officer, GS-10-11, USFS, 61 locations.
- Forestry Technician, Dispatch, GS-4-7, USFS, 56 locations.
Some of the FS fire jobs at the website are open for a few months or a year, and others are basically continually open with no end dates. Hiring of permanent fire personnel can go on throughout the year as additional positions become vacant.
The entry level wildfire job with the federal agencies is usually a GS-3 working under the title “Forestry Technician,” which receives $13.32 per hour, almost $2 less than the minimum wage sought by some politicians recently. In California a state agency that competes with the federal government for hiring firefighters pays about double that rate. A recent survey found that the first and second most cited reason for leaving federal firefighting organizations is to move to a job with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression or local municipal fire departments.
Difficulties staffing Incident Management Teams
Skilled fire personnel leaving the federal land management agencies have made it difficult to find employees qualified and willing to serve on Incident Management Teams (IMT) that are mobilized to suppress large wildfires and manage other incidents.
From a report released May 13, 2021 by the Incident Workforce Development Group:
Today, critical challenges in rostering and managing IMTs is leading to a decrease in the number of teams available for an increasing number of complex incidents.
In the past five years there have been multiple occasions where all available IMTs have been assigned to large fires. Local units have had to face the consequences of managing a complex incident without the services of an IMT.
Firefighters in the Department of the Interior
A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior told Wildfire Today that they do not anticipate having a large number of vacant firefighting positions. (Wildfire Today was unable to confirm this claim):
The Department of the Interior is on track to have available a total of approximately 5,000 firefighters, a similar number to what was available last season.
The initial bureau hiring targets are:
Bureau of Indian Affairs – 600
Bureau of Land Management – 3,450
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – 530
National Park Service – 930
How many firefighters does the FS have?
The Forest Service, which is in the Department of Agriculture, has been saying for years that they have 10,000 fire personnel. Wildfire Today filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the the agency on December 10, 2019 to obtain the actual number of firefighters. We are still waiting to receive factual information.
Widespread news coverage
Three major news organizations have published articles this week about the recruitment and retention of federal wildland firefighters. Below are excerpts:
Despite the increased threat, the Forest Service does not expect to meet its goal of hiring 5,200 federal firefighters in California this year.”It will be below that number,” said Bob Baird, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. “With hiring challenges and attrition, it could be a lower percentage than that, but we won’t know until we finish our hiring process.”
“California is ground zero for attrition,” said Riva Duncan, a former Forest Service officer who is the executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which advocates for federal fire personnel. “We’re losing people at an accelerated rate because there are so many other opportunities.”
The [FS] projected a shortfall of 313 firefighters in Region 5 this year, at least 8% fewer firefighters than it aimed to employ. The shortfall is frustrating for many in California’s state government, which relies on the federal service to help put out wildfires, but has little control over staffing levels.
Thom Porter, the chief of California’s state fire agency, CAL FIRE, said he’s had regular conversations with California-based Forest Service officials about staffing this year. He said he’s most worried that when the agency’s teams are moved to fight fires in other states, the Forest Service won’t have enough people, or enough experienced people, to backfill those roles in California.
“If they’re unable to hire, if they’re unable to keep staff on when we’re having our most critical periods, it is a public safety risk,” Porter said of the Forest Service. “Because we so much rely on each other that—there isn’t a single agency in California that has all of the resources it needs for a major incident of any type. It’s all hands on deck.”
Los Angeles Times (subscription):
Jon Groveman, a spokesman for the Forest Service in California, said the agency attempts to staff 46 hotshot crews in the state annually, but it hasn‘t been able to fill all of those positions for several years, leaving it with between 35 and 40 crews. The agency expects “a similar number of crews to be staffed this fire year,” he wrote in an email, adding that “some crews for various reasons (mainly due to staffing challenges) will not be able to attain Hotshot standards.”
Hotshot crews that have lost that designation include the Horseshoe Meadow Hotshots in the Sequoia National Forest and the Modoc Hotshots in the Modoc National Forest, both of which the agency considers “unstaffed.”
A Forest Service job posting earlier this spring for a full-time, experienced firefighter in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson, Wyoming, warned applicants that real estate costs were high. It suggested a few affordable options, including Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit home builder that helps low-income people get into new homes.