During the last three weeks there has been a surprising amount of discussion about increasing the size of wildland fire crews. One national forest is hiring 30-person hotshot crews and 10-person engine crews.
- October, 20, 2021: Tim Swedberg recommended 30-person hotshot crews in an article on Wildfire Today;
- October 27, 2021: In testimony before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry said, “We need to have larger crew sizes, 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.”
- November 9, 2021: Ms. Hall-Rivera sent a memo to all U.S. Forest Service Regional Foresters directing them to add five firefighters to Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) to bring the size up to 25.
However, the effort to increase the size of USFS crews had been seriously discussed earlier. Wildfire Today has learned that the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California developed a proposal in 2018 for 30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC). Not only that, but we have obtained two memos written August 12, 2021 by the Fire Chief of the ANF recommending a pilot program for IHCs to be staffed with 30 people and engine crews to have 10.
Below is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 30-person hotshot crews.
[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ANF-IHC-staffing.pdf” title=”30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews”]
And next is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 9 or 10-person engine crews. (Since then, they have decided on 10-person engine crews.)
[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ANF-Engine-Staffing.pdf” title=”ANF Engine Staffing”]
The Angeles National Forest (ANF) is not only proposing larger IHC and engine crews, they are stepping out ahead of the crowd according to a person who prefers not to publicly disclose their identity. In recent weeks they completed hiring to have two 30-person hotshot crews and three 10-person engine crews in 2022. The newly selected personnel (promotions of existing permanent employees) will be effective in January, 2022. The crews will be fully staffed to start annual training in April.
One of the ANF memos states, “Although this [20-person IHC] model was effective for decades the current standard does not provide the depth to meet the higher demands for crew availability to provide employee wellbeing or meet the needs of crew availability across the fire year…This proposed module will increase capacity from 12 pay periods (6 Months) of availability to 18 Pay Periods (9 Months) of availability. This proposal will significantly improve work life balance for Hotshot firefighters… Although the IHC will have a full 3rd squad, the IHC will maintain the current deployment/mobilization standards of 20 personnel. Adherence to the current mobilization standard of 20 personnel will allow for an ongoing rotation for the 3rd module to stand down and remain “local only”. This stand-down period will help to provide ample opportunities for hotshot firefighters to manage annual leave and balance work with time at home. This will also help to provide the workload pacing to sustain a crew for 9 months while better managing the effects of cumulative fatigue and burn out. Finally, it will provide increased capacity for employees to develop for the next level of leadership through single resource assignments.”
Configuration of the 30-person ANF IHC
Two ANF IHCs will each add seven apprentice/Permanent Seasonals working at least 18 pay periods, a third hotshot Captain, a third squad leader, and two senior firefighters.
Configuration of the 10-person ANF Engine Crew
To the standard USFS Region 5 (California) Type 3 engine crew of seven people working five days a week, the upgraded crew will add three positions — a second Engineer, a second Assistant Fire Engine Operator, and a third Senior Firefighter. With the 12 hours per day staffing pattern, which we have been told the ANF has selected, they will work three days one week and four the other, with three days off in a row and four days off in a row during a two-week pay period. All of these staffing patterns call for five on each day.
History of IHC crew size
Since the early 1970s IHCs have been comprised of 20 people, or recently in some cases as many as 22 to help account for attrition, difficulty hiring, personal time off, sickness, and injuries. In 1970 El Cariso Hotshots had 36 people. When the size was reduced the next year, the story we were told was that the Forest Service wanted to use 20-passenger de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, which began production in 1966, to move crews around. So their decision was to cut the size of the crews to fit that airplane. There may have also been other reasons.
As a crew foreman at the time, I thought 20 people was too many to work together efficiently as one unit to dig line in most fuels, and a 10-person squad was too few. I felt that 13 to 14 crew members was the most efficient size to work together while digging line, which you would have with a 28 to 30-person crew broken into two squads, allowing for the Superintendent and lookouts. Those numbers can change in very light or very heavy fuels.