House committee hears testimony about wildland firefighting workforce reforms

Considered two bills, Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and, Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act

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wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Representatives from the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Much of the two and a half hours of Wednesday’s hearing before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources about wildland firefighter pay, devolved into rants about vaccine mandates and forest management. However, quality time was still spent on enhancing the pay and benefits of firefighters and generally improving the working conditions and management of the fire suppression work force. The entire hearing can be viewed on YouTube.

The two bills being considered were H.R. 4274 Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and H.R. 5631 Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. Brief descriptions of the two bills are in the article we published October 26.

Two representatives from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters gave five-minute presentations in addition to their more detailed written testimony. Kelly Martin, President, was on scene in the hearing room, while Vice President Lucas Tanner Mayfield appeared virtually. They both presented their cases for passing the legislation to improve recruitment and retention of the work force and making changes that would allow firefighters to earn a living wage.

Two employees from the Administration also testified, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire. They were both asked, how many firefighters do you have? The answers were “a little over 10,000” in the FS and 5,300 in the DOI. In addition, a representative of the logging community was present, Matt Dias, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.

In response to a question about the breakdown of permanent and seasonal firefighters, Ms. Hall-Rivera said presently in the FS it is about 60 percent permanent and 40 percent seasonal, and the goal is to make it 80 percent permanent and 20 percent seasonal. She said the FS needs more firefighters, including those who are specialists in technology and analysis.

Ms. Hall-Rivera also mentioned a concept that was new to me until we published an article on October 20 by Tim Swedberg who suggested hotshot crews grow from the present 20-person crews to 30, so that when 20 were deployed, 10 would remain at the base and go to their homes each night.

“We need to have larger crew sizes,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said, “so that people can take time off so they can rest and have a work/life balance. That’s going to mean we are going to need more firefighters.”

Rep. Katie Porter of California said,”As fires get bigger and more unpredictable at some point we’re just going to need more people. That’s just a fact.” She asked, “How many additional firefighters are we talking about, 100, or doubling the force from 10,000 to 20,000?”

Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have a number but she would get back to the committee with details.

Mr. Rupert from the DOI, when asked the same question, said, “We are in the middle of an assessment to really try to put good, solid numbers behind the optimal need.”

The written testimony from the Forest Service said three times that specific provisions in the proposed legislation would cause problems. For example,  increasing pay “will drastically reduce the number of firefighting personnel employed by the Forest Service.” And, establishing a Wildland Firefighter health database, a Wildland Firefighter mental health program, mental health leave, and a Wildland Firefighter presumption of illness policy, “will reduce the funding available for wildland fire suppression operations.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse asked if the temporary pay raise and awards for lower level firefighters this year helped with retention and recruitment.

“The incentives we put in place this year, they were a morale boost,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I know our firefighters appreciated them. It’s probably a little bit too soon to tell if they are having an impact on our firefighting work force this year, but these kinds of incentives and these kinds of reforms will have a positive impact, I believe.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Republicans make a statement at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, which was about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Democrats on the committee primarily spoke about and asked questions regarding the issues in the two pieces of legislation that were the topic of the hearing. Some of the Republicans also briefly mentioned those issues, but spent most of their time discussing vaccine mandates, forest management, and how they felt that wilderness areas and environmental laws restricted certain management activities. They emphasized their diversion tactic by sitting in front of five large posters that seemed to conflate firefighter safety with forest management or logging. Forest management can mean different things to different constituencies. It may be prescribed fire, thinning, and removing vegetation near communities, or, logging.

Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas asked about fuel treatments; “Can we make a difference with axes and shovels and rakes or is it going to have to be a large-scale mechanized planned-out approach?”

“[It] is the only way we’re going to get ahead of this and create safer communities and safer places for our firefighters to fight fires,” said Ms. Hall-Rivera. “We need strategically placed treatments, they need to be in the right places, and they need to be at the scale of the problem. Fires are out-pacing our fuels treatments, even the ones that are helping us. They’ve got to be larger and we’ve got to use all the tools in the tool box. That’s mechanical treatment, that’s herbicides, that’s chipping, that’s prescribed fire, and natural fire where it makes sense. We’ve got to have all the tools that are at our disposal to make a difference.”

“We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib brought up the issue of “homeless firefighters” who don’t make enough money to pay rent, so they live out of their cars.

Rep. Obernolte, said he is pro-vaccine but against vaccine mandates, which he said “…would really hamper our efforts over the next 12 months to fight wildfires. I feel that we might lose a substantial portion of our federal firefighting workforce.”

Ms. Martin said, “We in the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters haven’t heard the alarm, if you will, that there’s a lot of wildland firefighters that don’t want to take the vaccine. What we are hearing though is that there are people that are concerned who are in a work group that if someone is not vaccinated they may end up getting sick and then that whole entire crew is quarantined, they are not allowed to be deployed on fire assignments… also [would have] an impact on our response capabilities.”

In summing up the hearing, Ranking Member Russ Fulcher of Idaho said, “There is no question compensation is important. It is a critical part of any job and I’m not denying that in any way shape or form. I just don’t want to lose sight that the root problem we’re dealing with here on the ground is fuel load.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms. President of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Kelly Martin, and in the background, someone chewing gum while wearing a torn face mask.

The article was edited to show that the article about 30-person hotshot crews was written by Tim Swedberg, not John Culbertson. We regret the error.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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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.

32 thoughts on “House committee hears testimony about wildland firefighting workforce reforms”

  1. This movement was all started by a MAN who has over 40 years in the business Tim Swedberg. Tim has gathered some wonderful data on this issue and has brought it to the conversational fore front. Enough about covid you wanna play get the shot. Every major corp is making employees be vaxed. If you don’t that’s fine its your right but its time to look for different employment. Im sure most of you would agree this is more than a job its a passion. SO again lets be hopeful that there is a foot in the door and there trying to make things better from science on improving compensation and work load for FF. Also be grateful that there are individuals out there that still have passion like Tim that want to make the firefighting world a better place. He could easily be heading south and playing golf everyday and not give a damn about others futures. But here he is in the game doing his best for YOU!
    Also I could use many quotes but Ill leave just by saying “ignorance is bliss”

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  2. Sounds like Ranking Member Russ Fulcher of Idaho hit the nail on the head. “There is no question compensation is important. It is a critical part of any job and I’m not denying that in any way shape or form. I just don’t want to lose sight that the root problem we’re dealing with here on the ground is fuel load.” And, the FS statement is baffling, saying that increasing pay “will drastically reduce the number of firefighting personnel employed by the Forest Service.” Well, obviously, there would need to be additional funding to add personnel.
    And, not that I support it, but wasn’t it Tim Swedberg that recommended 30 person Hotshot Crews? And how did the Deputy Chief latch on to that, of all things? I’m in favor of more 10 person crews, that are logistically easier to support, along with a host of other benefits.

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  3. I’m going to use my moment here to say thank you. Grassroots, thank you for advocating for us and pushing the importance of these issues year round, something we have trouble doing during the season. Also, change happens when we are all saying the same thing and recognizing the issues at hand. I have seen more of this happening now then ever before, and I don’t think anyone is saying the work is over. Wouldn’t it be something if we could see the good in this, rather than picking apart the very human things that happen in life?

    So, I want to leave with this. Thank you Grassroots for everything, and keep up the fight! Thank you Wildlandfiretoday, for keeping us well informed. Lastly, thank you to the folks who are motivated to assist, rather than throwing rocks.

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  4. My dudes, I NEED a living wage in order to afford rent. Period. Half my workforce has housing insecurity. 5 out of 9 Captains here are struggling their way through an OWCP claim and have been for a year or more. I’ve been with my partner about 14 nights since April and the strain is sometimes difficult for both of us to bare. These thousand hour seasons to scrape by year after year after year are crushing us, despite our affection for the job.

    I understand we live in a highly polarized political environment but let’s not allow that to distract us from the end goal here. Grassroots along congressman Neguse are trying to push through Tim’s act to help save what remains of our workforce. That needs to be the focus. I get the covid concerns but that issue deserves a separate forum. It’s being used as a wedge issue to divide us. This piece of legislation is groundbreaking and important. Let’s not allow the vitriolic nature of national politics distract us from the end goal of supporting a better life for our firefighters.

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    1. Would like to add my “HERE HERE!”, here, too.

      This isn’t the 1950s. The workforce isn’t comprised of mainly seasonal, 3 month stint, college dudes wanting some easy cash and ‘fun working outside’.
      Not every Forest District Station has housing for even permanent employees to accept and work the job, let alone the seasonal employees coming in.
      Surrounding tiny towns don’t have housing.
      The further out larger towns or small rural cities may have rental property, but they are charging 2021 market prices which VASTLY outpaces the pay for a GS3-GS8.
      Then, the USFS decides to raise IT’S rental properties TO THE SAME RATES, WHILE PAYING THE SAME RATE! Where do we magically grow this extra money, for the limited old decrepit broken housing?!!?!

      This whole model does not, and has not worked for over a decade plus now, and it’s finally catching up.
      It ‘resembles’ the policy of killing every fire by 10am the next day, only in the fact that we are working with outdated policies and beliefs and trying to force them to work while the world around us changed 20 years ago, but it is in no way the same thing. Any attempts to shift the conversation to things like ‘forest fuels management’ is irrelevant and simply an attempt to dilute and muddy the waters and conflate issues. Bring that topic up when it comes time to the annual forest budget.

      When you can work any hours you want and make $17 an hour at the RURAL “Subway”, and be home every night and have a life, but you pay someone risking their life, be away from EVERYONE for 6 months, and only pay them $13 an hour, and charge them $800 for rent….you’re going to lose, every, single time.

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  5. Much thanks GRFF for keeping firefighter well being, especially compensation in the spotlight with both Congress and the media. You have truly made a difference and excited to see the momentum! NFFE FS leaders support your efforts and appreciate your support working toward better working conditions. A few efforts underway working under current legislation that are specific to Fire: hiring reform, balancing tours/schedules, compensation of entire shift, night differential, handling of “anti-harassment” cases, and last but not least reform of everything ASC from health insurance processing to career-ladder promotions. What we all endure as employees and waste our time on as supervisors performing admin functions and corrections is unacceptable. Appreciate all those involved to help make our work environment better. In partnership we will move the ball forward.

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  6. Interesting hearing. What a mess indeed. Our Forest Service fire workforce is a wreck – the Deputy Chief lady, nervous and scared- with no fire experience, that’s our leader?- trying to talk like she knows how to supports us. She has no clue. At least Kelly Martin seemed real. We know a fake leader when we see them- we need better leadership in Fire- Ms Hall – read your answers from notes and pretend to understand and support us. Is that our only choice for a leader? Sorry but – What a train wreak she was. Sad times for FS fire folks. At least DOI guy seemed knowledgeable and had some experience. Lucas did great. I hope our IHC folks don’t leave our crews after learning about this hearing – 30 people IHC. Why don’t ya ask us first? Ah yeah because you don’t know have any fire experience. Go grassroots please keep helping us.

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    1. @Jessie,
      Suggest you check your gender bias… With all due respect, Ms. Hall-Rivera addressed 80% of the questions and Mr. Rupert addressed 20%. Additionally, Mr. Rupert has no more prior on the line wildland fire experience than Ms. Hall-Rivera.

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      1. Thank you for that, “Just a Public Service.” Was also trying to figure out how to respond. Ms. Hall-Riviera never claimed to be a firefighter which I find refreshing. I get weary of managers exaggerating their fire experience. Anyway, I also thought she did a pretty good job of answering questions and providing information.

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  7. What a mess we find ourselves in……somebody said this hearing was huge, no it was not, and nobody has won anything yet, maybe a foot in the door…..it’s just a hearing….it’s a start, A start that could have an abrupt end……

    The 30 person crew thing sounds like it has merit, you better betta test this first, 10 hotshots missing a roll is not going to go over very well no matter how much you pay them to stay home, I am surprised that they would throw an (some Bodys) idea like this to the committee without first vetting it, you may want to survey the Supts as a whole first, you may be surprised at what they have to say……I always wanted 25 on the crew so that I could give folks time off when they needed it or not…..

    Let’s see here, Vaccine=keep your job, No vaccine=lose your job….No brainer….Take the shot….Seams like there may have been way to many issues on incidents this year w/ Covid……..Not Cool…….Oh Yes get the booster as well…
    Bill you are doing a great job….I appreciate you doing this, it gives old retired guy’s n gal’s like us a place to stay connected….Or should I say stir the pot……Peace…..

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    1. At first I thought the 30 person crew was a good idea. But I’ve had about a week to think about it and have come across a couple situations that needs to be discussed…

      1) How often do mods rotate? Every week? Every 2 weeks?
      2) How long is a tour for the whole crew? 14 days? 21 days? 28 days?
      3) How much R&R time does a mod get at home? 5 days? 7 days? 14 days? Will they be able to stay at home or will they be required to report to their duty station after a determined amount of rest period?
      4) If the local units breaks a fire while a mod is on R&R at home can the mod be used on the fire?
      What if the crew has maxed out their tour and is in demob; can the mod on R&R be used on the fire?

      I’m sure that when folks put their heads together on this, the questions to be answered will be in the hundreds. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of questions yet to be asked. You don’t know what you don’t know. I think it was a premature to present this idea to congress.

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  8. For apparently the vaccine mandate not being a part of Grassroots agenda, Ms. Martin had no problem answering the question, which in my option is very out of touch with the realty Fed Wildland fireghters are facing come November 22. Unfortunately if the feds are willing to discharge NAVY Seals and make them pay back their training for not getting vaccinated after applying for religious exemptions, don’t think they care to much about Wildland firefighters or lets just ignore the issue then it won’t have happened …Pretty sad state we are in.

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    1. Big Ernie, regarding Covid/vaccine hysteria, I will offer two quotes from H.L. Mencken:

      “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

      “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it …”

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      1. greenie, have you tried applying your quotes to both sides of the argument? You are anointing yourself as the sole judge of imaginary and “falseness.” The quotes are great. The only way to figure it out is science, data, and stats. If you believe in such things and wish to persuade folks to your interpretation, perhaps share them. Otherwise you seem like one more dude with an opinion. Guess what, everyone has one….

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    2. Well Big guy, maybe Uncle Sam is just done messing around with those who say they won’t live in fear, but are afraid to get a shot that is no worse than their annual flu shot. You want to put your co-workers at risk by being stubborn or selfish, adios mf (10-19)

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  9. Wildfire today in my opinion has degraded over the last few years from being a source for wildland news to being more comparable to a small town gossip paper….
    49.4 percent of the USDA is not vaccinated 1% has a single shot that’s 50.4 percent not fully vaccinated by Whitehouse standards. By their policy on Nov 22 we are gone. I understand it’s not in the grassroots agenda, but it is an issue. Maybe after the mass firing of thousands of federal employees grassroots or the committee will pick up on the issue ??‍♂️

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    1. I’m on a relatively large fire district and our vaccine washout rate is less than 20% for permanent employees. Currently 7-8 holding out and most will probably get vaxxed when the two week suspension leading to termination is at hand. Maybe we’re not representative of USFS as a whole but we’re not going to be hurt much by the mandate, so from my perspective, the potential for “mass firing” is overblown.

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  10. Grassroots sounds like their out of touch with boots on the ground. I know lots of Fed Wildland fire folks being faced with being fired for not complying with the vaccine mandate. Seems like the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about, but we could be in for a rude awakening for next fire season when we will be even more understaffed. Just saying…

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  11. Well… I don’t know, maybe being honest when a question is asked or address the comment of Rep with exactly what you just stated. It’s not Grassroots agenda or care if the mandate bleeds off more of our fire fighting force that we have been yelling and screaming to save for the last few years. Just be honest that is all I ask. Might be too much though, I guess I shouldn’t dare to ask.

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    1. These are folks that are making a choice. they will not be leaving the workforce due to pay reasons. Please stick to the conversation at hand, is there a out of balance pay structure? Quit adding pork to the bill.

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  12. There IS a concern of more folks leaving fire/ being fired due to the mandate. Anyone who can not see that chooses not to see it for whatever reason. Ms. Martin is either ignorant of what is actually happening on the ground or she is purposefully being misleading by her comment for her own purposes, whatever that might be.

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    1. What’s the point in turning the mandate into an issue in this hearing? The mandate comes from the white house, and it’s extremely polarizing. Some employees think everyone should be vaccinated and don’t want to work with unvaxxed, and some people think the vaccine will be harmful to their health.

      Either way, vaccine mandates are not something that is part of our agenda.

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    2. There is a concern of crews, contractors having to leave fires because they were unmasked, got sick, they and a whole crew had to leave the fire. Hubby was on 6 fires this summer, it happened in everyone he was on.

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      1. What happened to everyone on Hubby’s crew? Did they get sick for a few days with flu-like symptoms, end up in the hospital or die? How many of them caught seasonal flu and were able/expected to continue working? It’s my observation that Covid is every organization’s excuse for poor service. That’s not cool when it comes to wildfire.

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        1. greenie, Three of them died. (On the record.) I get your point about many infections being low to moderate health impacts, but are you insinuating everyone should get to work despite being infected? The previous point was simply about quarantining. Should we do nothing and let the whole camp get infected? There are some charts for you to look at if you believe this is the appropriate risk management strategy. It would easily end up as the most deadly year for wildland firefighters in history. I understand your perspective. I don’t live in fear and believe as you do that most of our firefighters are going to be just fine, COVID or not. Yet, your perspective is way oversimplified, especially considering public servants and their families are at risk and a considerable number could die. Not to mention as the original poster eludes to, it can impact our firefighting response to a much greater degree if we do nothing. Wishing all the best to our firefighters no matter their choice. Here is to hoping for solid data and flexibility to those closest to operations the ability to make the best risk management decisions the current information allows.

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    3. A vaccination isn’t a hill I want to die on-I got mine as soon as I was able. Just like all of the other vaccinations that I was required to get throughout the course of my life.
      Luckily, there are lots of jobs out there in the private sector for Feds who don’t wish to be vaccinated.

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  13. Important to note that no republican was against higher wages for wildland firefighters.

    And the Agency is supportive, with their only objection being that they need more funds to implement the policy.

    So huge day and huge wins here!

    Stay tuned at http://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com/tims-act for updates and continuing media coverage, including NBC News this evening.

    Last thing: the gum chewer is the president of NFFE… He’s a nice guy.

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    1. Yeah apparently his mask ripped when he but it on and wasn’t able to acquire another one.

      Lesson learned travel with two masks!

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