Senators ask Forest Service Chief about firefighter pay, fuels treatment, and firefighting aircraft

Chief Randy Moore said the agency has 10,184 firefighters on board

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Updated at 9:04 EDT June 10, 2022

Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources June 9, 2022
Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources June 9, 2022

In Washington today Senators questioned Chief of the US Forest Service Randy Moore about a number of issues during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Some the key topics included firefighter pay, fuel treatments, prescribed fire, escaped prescribed fire, hiring and retention, the number of firefighters in the agency, and firefighting aircraft. We’ll touch on some of them here, in the order they appeared in the hearing. An archived video of the entire hearing is available at the Committee’s website. Embedded below are clips created by the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

48:29 — Senator Ron Wyden (OR) said, “The shortage of permanent wildland fire positions, if not addressed, is on it’s way to becoming a four-alarmer…What’s the most important response? Better pay, decent benefits for these firefighters so they can pay their rent and buy groceries. That is not the case today according to firefighters talking to me.”

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, during June 9, 2022 hearing

Chief Moore replied, “You know Senator, if I had the ability to set the pay for my firefighters I would certainly do that. I am left with trying to implement direction that is given through legislation…We are going to use every tool in that legislation to pay our firefighters more because they are very deserving of it. It’s dirty, nasty, hard work and they do deserve better pay, they deserve better benefits, they deserve better care in terms of mental and physical health conditions out there.”

48:29 — Senator Wyden got a commitment from the Chief to respond within two weeks to the issues he listed in a June 7, 2022 letter sent to the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture about how the funds in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation (BIL) are being allocated and dispersed to the field, strategy for filling vacant positions, how to retain employees, progress on establishing the new Wildland Firefighter job series, and how to reduce the number of unfilled orders fires place for firefighting crews and engines.

1:02:09 — Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) asked questions about the escaped prescribed fires that led to the currently burning Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

1:15:50  — Senator Angus King (ME) gave an impassioned plea to implement the pay raises that were signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the BIL.

“Eisenhower retook Europe in 11 months”, Senator King said. “You can’t do a pay raise in seven months? Come on!”

Senator John Barrasso (WY) also called for a pay raise.

1:18:45 — Senator Cortez Masto asked about what may be a temporary pay raise required by the legislation which would increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less. Chief Moore said it will occur in “a couple of weeks”, and later said, “by the end of this month…That’s the goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.” Senator Masto was persistent, seeking facts and clarity, asking follow up questions, and getting details.

1:21:45 — Chief Moore discussed fuel treatments and emphasized that the treated areas must be large in order to effectively slow the spread of a very large fire. As far as accomplishing that, he  said, “… Based on the fires we are having now, we do not have enough firefighters to really successfully stop fires the way they are behaving because they are behaving in a catastrophic manner.

1:27:10 — Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) questioned the trend toward closing fire lookout towers staffed by humans, and replacing them with technology. The Chief did not take the bait or respond directly.

1:55:50 — Senator Maria Cantwell threw Chief Moore what could have been a softball question. “Where we are with our [firefighting] air capacity,” she said. “We previously had this discussion with the Forest Service wanting them to have more ready resources. The Forest Service I think at that time didn’t want to be in the fleet management business and said we’d rather contract. How are you viewing those air resources now that we know that we have so many more fire starts…We want to know that we have that early phase retardant or water…How is the Forest Service managing that given the huge increase in fire starts?”

Chief Moore responded: “You may know now that we have access to about 27 VLATS, Very large air tankers, also the large air tankers and so far we are not running across a need for additional tankers in this particular case at this particular time. We also — I don’t know why these decisions were made in the past about the aircraft but we do know that they are expensive to maintain if Forest Service had ownership of them. But you know there are pros and cons about that so I won’t really go into that, I’m not familiar with what went into that many years ago. In terms of our aircraft, we certainly need aircraft to help us with fire suppression. We also know that there are limitations with aircraft as well because aircraft don’t put out fires. It’s boots on the ground is where the fires are really put out.”

His predecessor in April 2021 squandered a softball opportunity to tell the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies that the Forest Service needed more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. Today Chief Moore squandered a similar opportunity, giving an incoherent response when basically asked, “Do you have enough firefighting aircraft?”

The facts are, there are 2 Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) and 16 Large Air Tankers (LAT) on exclusive use (EU) contracts, working for 160 days. To say “We have access to 27” VLATs and/or LATs is intentionally misleading. The Forest Service assumes that the additional tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that may or may not ever be used, are always available at private companies, with flight crews and mechanics that are available and ready to quickly activate if the phone rings. And, it assumes that those companies are still in business and the very expensive aircraft which may have been idle for months are fully maintained and airworthy.

There are only a total of four VLATs in the Western Hemisphere that could be used on fires in the United States, all DC-10s. Two are on 160-day Forest Service EU contracts and the other two were recently activated on 120-day “surge” contracts. It is also usually possible to activate up to eight military C-130s temporarily converted to air tankers by carrying a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). But after hearing some chatter, we are checking to see if those will be available this year.

Two studies conducted for the Forest Service made recommendations for the number of air tankers that are needed on exclusive use contracts. One said 35 and the other said 41.

2:00:30 — The very last topic covered was what we have called the Holy Grail of wildland firefighting safety; knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters. Senator Manchin pointed out that “15 months past the deadline in the statute the Forest Service has not equipped firefighters with the safety gear despite the technology having been commercially available on the shelf for many, many years, and despite Congress having appropriated $15 million for this, so maybe you have an explanation for that.”

Chief Moore said “No one believes in this more than I do”, but he said his staff told him it was not funded. The Senator said he understood it was funded. The two sides agreed to get together and figure it out.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act required that by March 12, 2021 the five federal land management agencies “…develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires.”

While this technology has been demonstrated, real time mapping appears to be far from being used routinely.

The Dingell Act also mandated that the five federal land management agencies “jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources for use by wildland firefighters, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal type 1 wildland fire incident management teams”, due by the same date.

The US Bureau of Land Management has installed hardware for Location Based Services (LBS) which are now operational on more than 700 wildland fire engines, crew transports, and support vehicles. Vehicle position and utilization data are visually displayed via a web-based portal or mobile device application.

Fifteen months after it was required by Congress the US Forest Service has made very little progress on this mandate.

Whether or not the technology was specifically funded, it should be considered that the lack of situational awareness had led to dozens of fatalities on wildland fires and must be addressed.

We asked Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, for their impression of today’s hearing:

Federal Wildland Firefighter Pay has been a priority for our elected officials since the BIL was passed last October. We are still waiting. We are hopeful this increase in pay will be delivered to firefighters in the next two weeks.

The article was updated to include the question and answer about the requirement for the five federal land management agencies to provide technology for the real time location of the fire and firefighters.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

43 thoughts on “Senators ask Forest Service Chief about firefighter pay, fuels treatment, and firefighting aircraft”

  1. Chief Moore kept spewing the 90% staffing number that everyone in the field knows isn’t true. It’s clear to me that they are using some computer metric and are not reaching out to regional hiring coordinators in the field. There is a big disconnect between the DC office and the field. It also seems that legislators have sided with the firefighters they are talking with, and the reporters who are doing excellent work.

    Every time the Washington Office says they are staffed at 90%, their credibility drops, and they lose trust from their workforce. We’ll probably never know the true numbers…

  2. The 90% staffing number is based on an arbitrary target, not full employment. We are 90% percent of our target and 90% capacity for staffing are two different statements.

  3. Best courtroom drama ever 5/5!

    Moore’s portrayel of a confused and frightened bureacratic moleman was stunning! Senator Angus King dominated his screen time as the suprisingly adept and grouchy eastern cross-examiner and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto played a more subtle but more articulate and refined counterpoint to Senator King’s raving.

    Senator Wyden was a great straight man, making a good static character amongst the more dynamic members in the room.

    All in all, I was riveted for nearly the entire performance, minus the guy trying to sell insurance. Like that wasn’t an obvious plot twist.

  4. So hard to hear a line officer talk about fire. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. He seemed nervous. Firefighters don’t talk about line issues because that is not our expertise. We defer to them. Yet this Chief puts on a face that pretends to know what is going on. He doesn’t. So sad for us. It is frustrating. My crew could have answered his questions about prescribed fire and fire behavior better. Yep. Well glad he grabbed that let’s build a national forest in Hawaii better than any fire response. OMG. Can we ever get a Chief that knows fire and is not a line officer. Probably will never happen because they- the line officers – control us. No wonder nothing changes or happens fast. THIS IS WHO WE ARE.

  5. 27 VLATS????????

    So where is Randy keeping the other 23 mysterious VLATS??????? ????

  6. The fact that he said “It’s dirty, nasty, hard work” as a justification for more pay actually makes me wonder if he understands how complex and in-depth the skills required to perform it at any moderate level are?

    Mixing concrete by hand in a wheelbarrow doing general construction labor is dirty, nasty, hard work.

    Directing ground and air operations in mixed jurisdictions, medevaccing injured people, operating a complex apparatus, calculating hydraulic outputs, performing firing operations, felling hazard trees, troubleshooting modern radios etc. etc. and being expected to have at least a general level of knowledge across the board is extremely specialized and skilled work.

    I think he just pictures a bunch of us digging and yelling in the woods all day.

  7. Sen. Masto definitely asked the right questions that directly made Moore commit to somewhat of a deadline.

    Sen. King? Meh…grandstanding and faux outrage IMO. If congress and this committee truly gave a shit they would have never stuck that “hard to recruit areas” line in there. If they cared the Tim Hart Act would not be sitting on a shelf for the past 7 months. That was my concern with the BIL…they would pass it and think they’ve done enough….seems like thats what has happened. The agencies inaction or slow implementation is the only thing keeping pay for WFFs on their radar and providing enough ammo for a sound bite to get some air time so it looks like they care…..

  8. He said the $ will come by the end of this month. I’m sure that’s the backpay from the beginning of the fiscal year plus that PPs supplement $. Everything should be good to go and our workforce problems will be fixed. So grateful everything will be ok now.

  9. Fun fact: Mixing concrete by hand in a wheelbarrow doing general contruction labor pays better.

    His whole “if I had the ability to set the pay for my firefighters I would certainly do that.” Was the biggest load of BS today. They’ve had years to fix this and so far its taken executive orders, laws passed by congress, and firefighters leaving in droves for them to do anything….now he’s trying to play victim saying his hands are tied….

  10. The greatest lie being told is the 90% hiring target nonsense. The target is meaningless. The number reported should be the total percent of filled and unfilled positions out of the grand total budgeted.

    For sure example: If I have 100 Fire positions on my Forest and my goal is to hired 50, I achieve 90% of my target if I hire 45. Now 35 positions could still be vacant, but I got very close to my target.

    These folks in DC are cowardly con artists who are insanely out of their depth and propped up by an insanely dysfunctional bureaucracy that trains its line officers to do nothing but play nice and put a happy face on for the public, rather that work to resolve issues that threaten the very lives of its employees and the fundamental mission of the agency.

  11. Had stuff come up so I couldn’t actually watch it so that sucked, however I did catch a few snips on the old Instagram. Check in the mail by the end of the month??? I guess I’ll be waiting for that 20k to hit the bank…………..

  12. These Senators have no idea they’re talking to the man who perpetuated so many of the issues USFS Wildland Firefighters currently deal with when he was Region 5 director. Randy Moore is the poster boy for failing forward.

  13. So.much.lying.

    Please sign the petition! It may not get him removed. He may not resign. Will someone more competent succeed him? Probably not.

    However, we have got to let them know we are paying attention and we are engaged. We will not let ineptitude, obfuscation or lying slide! We expect results just like results are expected of us. We will hold our leaders accountable and we will not relent.

  14. Big guy with glasses I believe is Jake Donnay – USFS Legislative Director

    Curly haired guy is Mark Lichtenstein – Another USFS budget guy

  15. You hit the nail on the head. Most of these line officers imagine us as ground pounding monkeys versus highly skilled first responders that travel not only the US but the world training and assisting other nations. That line of reasoning for a pay raise is semantics that still regulate us to the world of catch all forestry technicians. The whole reason for a separate classification is to account for the specialized experience and years it takes us to move up the GS ladder due to qualification requirements, unlike our counterparts who can get a GS 11 two years out of college. The hardship argument is part of the equation but shouldn’t be the driver. As you said, it let’s you know what they are really thinking.
    Call it what you will, but Sen. King has made us a very good catch phrase to use.
    We all know the 90% thing is in left field, on my forest alone, one of the largest in the Region 3, we are sitting at 80% fill on perms and about 85% on seasonals after multiple rounds of hiring. We are missing key middle leadership positions from AFMOs to FEOs and crew leaders.
    Yet these kind of hearings where wildland firefighters are a key part of the conversation weren’t happening ten years ago. The ship is slowly turning because we all continue, along with our politicians and media, to lean on the rudder despite the bureaucratic headwind of FS leadership.

  16. I think Doug was referring to the person seen in the photo at the top of the article which shows a person, possibly a woman, sitting at the table with Chief Moore.

  17. Regarding the geolocation of personnel issue. I have heard NIFC folks say ” a couple thousand dots on a screen has no value.” That is the depth of the 2 dimensional thinking and disconnect. SMH.

  18. Back when the Chief was a relatively new RF in R5 he embarked on a tour of Forests in Ca. When he came to my Forest he shared among other b.s. that all of us in fire had “mission creeped” over the years and that wasn’t a good thing according to him & the powers that be. He then went on to inculcate and recruit Forest Supervisors who shared his “We’re a Forest Service NOT a Fire Service” mentality. Wonder why theres been such HUGE friction between Line Officers & Fire Managers for many years now. I have a hard time believing anything the FS adults in charge have to say because they have – for years & years – consistently failed us and consistently need a court order to make a damn change happen…

  19. Maybe a time to shake up leadership and get new blood in there with a can do attitude

  20. As the smoke and mirrors continue let’s remember Mr Moore has not completed much of anything productive for the FAM side of the house. Throughout his very long lengthy career as a politician.

  21. Got that right, Pedro. He was useless and incoherent about fire 22 years ago and remains useless and incoherent now, except now he’s getting more pay for it.

  22. Does anyone know how or why this pay increase is now being referred to as a “pay supplement” instead of increase in “base pay” as the language in the law states. Tried to ask this through email provided at Town Hall, but it’s not operational.

  23. Almostretiredbro,

    That was the language that came out in the town hall from Rivera, et al. Seems really unfortunate to me, that whomever does receive it, it won’t boost their OT, H, TSP contributions or High 3 calculation.

  24. Yeah she said the determination from OPM was that it was a “pay supplement”. Just curious if anyone had heard how this was determined? From the law it seems pretty clear, although I’m no lawyer; “increase the base salary of a Federal wildland firefighters”. Yeah, for the reasons you mentioned. Has anyone had any luck with the Town Hall questions email they provided?

  25. I asked the same question and here is the response I received:

    “Thank you for your comments and question about the Wildland Firefighter pay. To address your question on why it is taking so long to begin payment. Numerous items must be addressed that people may not be familiar with. The language of the legislation was not written in a way that could be quickly or easily implementable. One of the biggest challenges is the term “base pay,” which is not used in the federal government. Had the word “basic pay” been used in the legislation, there would have been a clear understanding of the policies.”

    Blows my mind that they can’t figure out the difference between base pay and basic pay.

  26. Thanks for info. Talk about searching for ways to change intent. What an outfit. I’ve been in communication with my Representative and Senators, I’ll pass that information along. Probably won’t matter, but what’s the harm.

  27. I was told this was OGC’s interpretation. Stinks. And not what the writers of the BIL intended.

  28. Please be careful.
    Your comments may earn you an “anonymous” harassment complaint for “bullying”

  29. Thanks Riva. Figured it was something like that. Now you can see why I’m no lawyer. Base vs basic, thought I’d heard it all. One step up, two steps back. Thanks for all that your doing and will continue on my end.

  30. The Bobs:
    Randy, what would you say…ya do here? Hmm?

    I have people skills, I am good at dealing with people! What the hell
    is wrong with you people!!!!!!!

  31. USA National Wildland Fire Agency.

    Works for FEMA.

    You need us for fire or project work. Then order us and pay us accordingly.

    Time for real change. Scary for USFS and Smokey The Bear.

    Tired of same old same ole that hasn’t worked for years now.

  32. Base or Basic,

    What a train wreck. If that ends up being the hurdle they are “attempting” to overcome, it speaks volumes about how little the land management agencies actually care about implementing positive change.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’re actually close to the bottom yet, in terms of staffing. Plenty of employees who are close enough to retirement to ride it out, love the job/location/people, etc. USDA & DOI certainly don’t make it enticing to recruit employees who are going to stick around for 25+ seasons to have enough time to retire, not to mention the folks who are years away from being done and rightfully searching for some greener grass. There will always be a contingent that spends a few years in fire as an exercise in life experience and a sprinkling of masochists who will put in 30 seasons, regardless of the pay/benefits.

    People in the fire community are incensed/sounding the alarm, etc. about conditions/capacity/the future. However, how much reduction in staffing and widespread destruction of communities/resources will it take for the issue to become a dinner table conversation topic across the nation for more than one week in August each summer? That’s when the real demand for change will happen, but at what cost? I have no idea how long that will take with the current outflow of employees – 1 year, 5 years?

  33. “One of the biggest challenges is the term “base pay,” which is not used in the federal government. Had the word “basic pay” been used in the legislation, there would have been a clear understanding of the policies.”

    If I had even an inkling that they were dealing with a challenge of this magnitude, I would never have complained.

    Most of this policy is etched into tablets made of a type of cursed magical alloy that will kill even the most skilled of sorcerers attempting to change it.

    May those few of the GS-megazorgs that survive the journey back from this monumental task unscathed, unburned and sane, be blessed with the prayers of those of us too afraid to venture into this stygian abyss of modifying 2 letters in a word.


  34. Just imagine how recruitment, retention, and Wildland firefighter will be dissected.

  35. Thoughts and prayers. I end up getting involved in some very middling policy interpretation and it seems like it isn’t so much a matter of being able to implement an interpretation of a given policy, it is the matter of finding someone that will make a decision.

    I was working recently trying to get per diem approved in a certain circumstance for my employees. We had a practice of not paying it and the policy looked like I could make an argument for paying it. This would have affected 2 or 3 people and cost maybe another few hundred dollars per year.

    I went to a few people I knew, including a budget specialist and got several interpretations. I opened a ticket through B&F and got another interpretation from an elevated ticket.

    Several people, including my boss and some more budget people opened tickets as well, because we all interpreted it differently.

    The B&F person with the tickets elevated it even further to the WO.

    That is where it is at now. The reality, is that I could probably just have my employees file claims and get paid. There is a chance, if there was an audit that they might have to pay the per diem back, but as far I as can tell, they are claiming it for legitimate reasons. I think also, we could easily argue this with whomever might audit them.

    So much of the policy is written in such an ambiguous way to give managers the ability to choose which interpretation suits them. Now that we have gone to a self-service model, it makes it easier for myself as a supervisor to pick my own interpretation and see if HR or B&F agrees.

    But, in our very top-down system, we are still waiting for someone at the WO to simply say “this is our interpretation”.

    There has never been hesitation in the past to interpret things to the benefit of the agency, to save money or meet targets or deadlines.

    I just don’t see how there is any actual mechanism in the process of getting our raises out that is actually that big a challenge. I think the challenge is finding a person to just say yes to it and have to commit to being responsible for making a decision based on their interpretation.

    But, I also don’t exactly have a bird’s eye view.

  36. Is there any push towards shifting away from private resources (either completely or in part)? Contractors must be much more costly than internal resources, so why not shift funds away from private crews towards the many internal domains which could use the money? Seems the Forest Service is squandering its budget on the profits of the private sector.

  37. Trucking companies can develop a program so they know where their trucks are locate across the country. Why can’t the government develop equipment to keep tabs on firefighters…oh wait. That equipment already exists.
    How about do something to stop the ignition of so many fires? Once the fire is going it’s not possible in most instances to stop it.

Comments are closed.