As the Western states enter the traditional wildland fire season there is a report that only 65 to 70 percent of US Forest Service firefighting positions in California are filled. An article written by Brianna Sacks of BuzzFeed News stated that about 1,200 full-time positions are unfilled in the state. Approximately 35 percent of entry- to mid-level positions on engine crews are filled, as are about half of the similar positions on hotshot crews.
An excerpt from the article:
With the open positions, some units are left unable to operate their engines at all. A recent internal document tallying engine staffing across California also obtained by BuzzFeed News shows that about half of 260 Forest Service engines are either understaffed, so they can’t run seven days a week, or not staffed at all. That’s resulted in about 35 engines being “on blocks,” or inoperable.
Hotshot crews that can’t meet the rigid interagency standards for staffing and training will not be able to respond to a fire as a hotshot crew, and will be reduced to becoming a less qualified Type 2 crew, or forming “modules” of smaller numbers of personnel. Some of them may export their personnel to fill in on engines so that THOSE resources can respond.
Over the last two years, at least, the five federal land management agencies that hire large numbers of wildland firefighters have been experiencing increasing difficulties recruiting and retaining personnel. Reasons cited by current and former firefighters include very low pay, long hours, too much time away from home, too little time with families, limited opportunities for career growth, and the temporary and sometimes life-altering physical injuries experienced by these tactical athletes.
It takes five to seven years for a wildland firefighter to soak up enough experience and training to reach a lower to mid-level leadership position, and 15 years or more to begin to serve in the higher ranking positions day to day and while assigned to fires. With people at all levels resigning, the federal agencies are losing not only corporate knowledge but the hard-earned proficiency of safely and efficiently suppressing small and large wildfires while supervising dozens or hundreds of emergency workers performing one of the more dangerous jobs on the planet. A resigning senior firefighter with 15 years of experience “slides” in his brain can’t be replaced overnight with a person off the street.
Implementing the pay raises that were signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would be a huge step in the right direction. The agencies knew several months before the legislation was signed in November that it was most likely going to happen, so they have had nearly a year to plan for and implement this requirement. It is not optional. It’s the law. And while the USFS and DOI fiddle, the United States will burn, more engines will be “on blocks”, and some hotshot crews will disappear at least on paper.
Any visible progress has been slow. Today on the Forest Service website Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Jaelith Hall-Rivera, who has become the public point person for implementing the pay raises, issued what she described as an update:
In the next few weeks, we will make announcements about the firefighter occupational series and the increased payment that is funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law…We understand your frustration and thank each and every one of you for your patience. Implementation has taken longer than any of us could have expected but getting it right is important.
There have been few signs of “patience.”
Meanwhile, the National Federation of Federal Employees is very concerned about what they have learned about proposed changes.
Another @NFFE_Union letter to DC leadership. Looks like they’ve seen some notes from @USOPM and are not happy about the current effort to reform Wildland Firefighter Pay & Classification. They even provide 19 pages of feedback, calling for a career ladder to GS12, similar to @CBP pic.twitter.com/aWd1DV87XX
— Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (@GrassrootsWFF) June 7, 2022
If the exodus is not reversed, the ability of the federal agencies to fight fires and treat fuels is at stake — during a time when there is a goal of quadrupling the number of acres treated by prescribed fire and mechanized methods. Who is going to onboard new employees, plan the projects, meet with stakeholders, obtain environmental clearances, issue contracts, run the chain saws, and carry the drip torches? And who is going to fill the slots on the shrinking Incident Management Teams?
All while escalating wildfire activity demands MORE skilled and qualified fire personnel, not fewer.