I have never seen anything like this. Over the past few months numerous politicians have been motivated and nationally recognizable media outlets have assigned reporters to dig through the opaque barriers established by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service to expose the worsening working conditions of wildland firefighters. Even though Congress passed a law requiring improvements in several areas, the bureaucratic morass of inaction driven by the indecisiveness of leaders has led many of them to abandon all hope, and quit.
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, costs of housing, inadequate mental health support, and the temporary and sometimes life-altering physical injuries experienced by these tactical athletes. This has led to severe difficulties in hiring and retaining firefighters, resulting a large number of vacant positions at all levels.
One of the latest well-researched pieces about the decline of working conditions for federal firefighters was published today, written by Alex Wigglesworth, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. It is titled, “Hellish fires, low pay, trauma: California’s Forest Service firefighters face a morale crisis.”
In addition to documenting and elaborating on the issues above, their research found:
- “Only 62% of federal firefighter positions [in California] are filled, according to a source within the agency. Before 2020, nearly all firefighter positions across the nation would typically be filled at this time of year.”
- “Roughly a third of all Forest Service fire engines in California are on five-day staffing, meaning there aren’t enough crew members to operate them seven days a week.”
- “Another 13% of engines are “down staffed” — essentially parked due to lack of firefighters.”
The reporter mentioned Chris Mariano who was a GS-6 Squad Boss on the Truckee Hotshots in Northern California until April 7, 2022 when he resigned. Wildfire Today published a letter he wrote at the time. He said drafting it was difficult — the best part of his life was working as a hotshot on the Tahoe National Forest:
“I prospered — I was all in,” he wrote. “I wanted nothing more than to be a hotshot, to be a leader, to care for the land and to be of service. While the sense of purpose and camaraderie remain, I now feel hypocritical to recruit or encourage crew members to work for an agency that is failing to support its fire management programs and thus the public.”
“The agency is failing its firefighters on so many levels. Classification, pay, work life balance, mental health, presumptive disease coverage, and injury/fatality support. There are efforts to correct some of these issues but for many it is too little too late…We are losing people at a terrifying rate at a time when wildfires burn longer, hotter, more frequently, and with devastating severity.”