LA Times writes about trauma, low pay, and morale among Forest Service firefighters

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Fire crews on the Route Fire entrapped
Fire crews on the Route Fire in Southern California, 4:40 p.m. Sept. 11, 2021, about five minutes before they were nearly entrapped. Photo by one of the firefighters.

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.”

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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.

35 thoughts on “LA Times writes about trauma, low pay, and morale among Forest Service firefighters”

  1. Don’t forget retaliation and blacklisting. Most people just walk away rather than stand up against it.

    I’d likey still be stationed in region 5 otherwise.

    1. Your so right Pedro those stories are rarely published although they are all too frequent. You say you would likely still be there, and they say there is a great shortage and need.

      The shortage is induced not only through low pay but inequity. It’s interesting to me contract crews are not having a problem filling there positions even with lower pay and less benefits.

      1. The benefits aren’t there sure but contract pay has become leaps better than USFS.
        Going from a GS4 with a ICT5Q Getting $14.72 an hour (translates to about $325 on fire assignment) to well over $400 in private as a ENGBt and once signed it’ll be over $600, I can’t say I’m missing the low pay of USFS. But many stay because of the close bonds, pride and hope it’ll get better soon.

        Many of these contract handcrews routinely get 7-8 assignment ls a year which translates to $40k-$55k a season and the $40k is for entry FFT2s.
        Engine Bosses are in short supply even in the contract sector and there’s often advertisements on Wildland Fire Contract Facebook pages for $700-$750 daily rates. Crew bosses are getting $800.

        I’d thank Klamath NF Management is their intention to put me in a better financial position was deliberate.

        1. The really disturbing part is that you have been conditioned to think that “$40k-$55k a season and the $40k for entry FFT2s” with limited benefits is an appropriate amount for the work that you do.

          You are getting robbed.

          1. For 6-7 months of work, imo that’s fair. Beats the hell out of the $22k-$28k on Klamath NF because Management likes to horde local resources.

        2. As a GS-7 in the FS I routinely make 6 figures a year. However, I am also going over 1,000 hours overtime each year as well. And I am totally burnt out. Still, I rather keep my benefits and I am optimistic it will get better.

  2. Just watch when they finally do dish out that long awaited “bonus” check we’ve been waiting 10 months for. When it goes to the GS-4 through GS-9 level in the 0462 series and not to our upper management they are going to all retire. Nobody will fill their shoes because there is no reward in leadership. What happens when those who do not live in a “hard to fill location” flip out when they do not get the bonus. What’s going to happen then? It’s going to make morale worse. We already can’t fill our IMT’s. What are the few engines going to do with out leadership?

  3. I spent 10 seasons as a wildland FF2 while working for one of the largest fire districts in az. When I chose to promote to Captain the writing on the wall said I was never gonna make it. I tested for the small single station fire district next door and was offered a captain position. As a new captain I forgot to take care of myself while I was caring for my new crew, new dept and community. I lost my 17 yr fire career over my emt certification. Because of an anonymous letter,, blacklisting and discrimination, I could never rejoin the fire service. So when I see a mountain range or building literally being burnt to the ground, I remind myself the fire service adores hiring the incompetent and unknowing…having said all that…id still get on an engine or join a hand crew if the hiring process actually was equitable and meant to find those that “can do”. I know plenty of volunteers who never got or get the chance to join the full time ranks and it sucks knowing it.

  4. Some of the retention issues raised in the article are inherent to the position, long hours, away from home for long period of time , little time with families……Yep all true…..it’s the job……Housing cost……do you expect the gov to pay you enough money so that you can buy a home in CA……really…..The medium home price in CA is over 500k, that is out of reach for a great many people, that is why folks are leaving CA.

    Why pre pandemic, no issues with hiring, post pandemic it’s in the toilet…..there may be something with how our society looks at things now….who knows….

    This forum I would venture to say only represents a very small cross section of fed FF’s, but how do fed FF’s really feel about things, I know things need to improve big time, that has been the case for many decades, but is it really as bad as all you say it is or are you the minority, a GS-7 where I live is a decent wages or it was until the great inflation hit soon to be the great recession……we are all in trouble this time….
    The article raises some very important issues to be sure….PAY……Mental Health support……these are big deals…
    Working in fire is a choice, if it does not fit well with your life needs then please find something else, having middle Leadership (supervisors) expressing there negativity in the presence of their crews is never good, Oh it happens, maybe too much…..Lastly being on a shot crew for most of us was never really just about the money, it was much more than that, it is being part of something very special, so special that you are willing to sacrifice much to be a part of it…..Not for everyone…..
    I wish you all the very best, I am certain that much needed change is very close…….Peace…..

    1. I would almost guarantee that one was a lobbyist. If he has held a fire rake in his hand for something other than to prop on
      I am a goldfish. That was their point. They all went somewhere else because of years of inaction on those issues.Those in charge, this sounded more like you, were either stupid, did not care because you weren’t working for that pay, or just generally inept. Unlike you he could not continue to lie and recruit. You are what is wrong with this organization. I do believe change is coming.

    2. I would disagree the minority feels this way currently but that’s MY perspective. At least not the GS-3-GS-9s. These topics are absolutely the number one ice breaker for conversation on the line with people who meet for the first time and people you are seeing each other again. “How’s your staffing this year?”

      This year, I’m finding is very different then any other time in my 20 yrs of doing this. There is this weird feeling, especially on fires. I can’t really explain it. It just seems like EVERYONE is pissed off and exhausted – over it, done. The other day I was on a 30 acre fire or so and there where just the skeletons of engine crews and IHCs. Every resource was short and thrown together. No cohesion, people outside normal positions, pissed off and exhausted. Maybe we never recovered from the last 2 yrs. Idk but it’s a weird and new social environment out there. People seem disappointed, taken advantage of and just plain tired. The joy of it all is gone. It’s different and not good. Hope everyone stays safe and tries to not let the attitudes effect how we do business. I know it’s hard to not be overwhelmed this year with everything going on.

      1. My perspective – Things have changed, what you are describing sounds like burn out. Burn out is very dangerous. People can get hurt or even die. SR

      2. Thanks for putting into words what I am seeing and feeling as well in my area. There definitely is an underlying vibe that is not good as people are increasingly just over it in ever growing numbers. No one wants to be here (mentally, physically, or spiritually) and is just grinding through the season to get to the other side of it. The cultural aspects of this job are the glue that keeps the wildland fire community functioning at a high level, and that glue is no longer holding.

        I have been in this game for 15 years (hotshot, engines, helitack, mid-level management with a ton of quals), but I have put the wheels in motion to quit wildland fire permanently after this season with a private industry job contract already signed and a start date September. My personal light at the end of the tunnel. I have not made that known to my supervisors or peers, and it makes me wonder how many of them might have similar plans or serious thoughts to head down that path.

        I have little hope any meaningful change will come out of the Infrastructure Bill or anything that follows. The “leadership” that is implementing these changes seem to be going out of their way to not implement with the intent that the legislation was created for.

        Literally as I type this, I received a notice for the BLM Fire Chat Friday Session #5 – Wildland Firefighter Series and Pay Incentives Update in my .gov e-mail inbox. Key word there is “Incentives” – which translates that the Infrastructure Bill pay increase we were told was coming will not be be a base pay increase (which then increases OT, retirement, etc), but merely a incentive/bonus payment similar in nature to the one-off one we received last year.

        Why? Because the “base pay” wording in legislation is not technically what the OPM powers-that-be call our salary which is “basic pay”. Yes – we are going to get screwed because of the 2 letters difference between “base-pay” and “basic-pay”.

        1. I’m with you. I am 1000% over all of it. I do the bare minimum in my PD and not a nanogram more. When I am off the clock, I leave immediately and silence my phone when I get home.

          The fact that OPM and our “leadership” chooses to screw us because of a word, when they know what the intent was, is indicative of apathy. They immediately glommed on to any potential off ramp that they could find and “interpret”. Nope, F___ this agency, I’m done with it.

    3. Well said. Life is about choices, in all my years I have never forced anyone to take an assignment, OT is a choice, buying a house is a choice, where you live is a choice, everyone has the choice to do what is right for them. Yeah some things need to change but everyone has a choice in what they do or how they do it. I do think this forum is a small group, its usually the smallest groups that yell the loudest and get the attention. The ones I respect and admire are the ones that go to work every day, train their people, and make the best out of a situation.
      Being a hotshot was never about money, OT was a scoreboard but I always taught my folks to not build your life around OT, its not guaranteed and you can’t depend on it. Right now everyone complains about not making enough money, so we offer them longer tours, oh no! They don’t want that, god forbid they have to work year round. That doesn’t mean taking every assignment that comes in year round, that means making a choice if you want to, or need too.

      1. I think what’s glossed over by the “suck it up, you voluntarily made this choice” crowd is the loud flushing sound of people departing this profession in droves. We could go back & forth until we’re blue in the face about what the (myriad) fundamental causes of this exodus are, but the fact remains that unless we fix some of these underlying issues and make this profession more attractive, we are going to be in dire straits.

    4. I agree the long hours, being away etc are inherent to the job, in a way, but its a lot worse than it was 3-5 years ago. The expectations have exceeded capabilities and the ability to be somewhat be resilient in managing your life with the job.

    5. “Why pre pandemic, no issues with hiring, post pandemic it’s in the toilet…”

      I was going to skip commenting on this subject, because we’ve talked the ineptitude and ambivalence of the FS into the ground, but this particular nugget is so wrong, I couldn’t let it pass.

      I’ve been in a supervisory role since 2015, and sat on single-position hiring committees before that, and your statement simply isn’t true. In 8 years, I have only ONCE filled out an entire org chart, and run at NWCG minimum staffing numbers more than 3/4 of the time. I know that’s just anecdotal, but it isn’t an outlier in the two regions I’ve worked in during that time. Let’s call that a decade, because as an assistant I witnessed the same conditions, and then Let’s call that 15 years, because as a lead I was often in the same scenario, and now we’re talking about 3 regions worth of observations.

      I appreciate your steadfast “glass half full” attitude towards the issues we face. But maybe since your retirement things have spiraled downwards exponentially and you’re not seeing it day in and day out.

    6. Old DRHS, I bought a home in Albuquerque, NM for $180,000. That same home, same layout, same year built, same plot size was $680,000 in CA. In NM, I qualified for a loan, but in CA I didn’t. The point is that firefighters salaries are not keeping up. They are being priced out of the market. The FS has to address this or people will not take the jobs in certain locations.

    7. I think a lot of this is, if you spread doom and gloom, then it will all be doom and gloom. I really think most folks in this job are in it for very specific reasons. I used to say that there is 5% of this job that is worth putting up with 95% of the BS. There is a need for change, so stick around and be a positive influence in making those changes, or move on.

    8. Also agree and same story. I was on a crew to fight fire because I loved the job….not cause I hated it and it wasn’t fair.

    9. Or maybe the pandemic allowed people to think a little and come to their senses. In a country of extreme inequality, where boomers own eighty percent (80) of assets, maybe young people have discerned not to waste their time serving dysfunctional or fraudulent institutions. Or fight fires risking life and limb to save million dollar homes of the wealthy while being paid an absolute pittance and paying to share a bunkhouse. Or extinguishing fire by throwing money at it until it rains while the fire industrial complex buries its snout in the taxpayer’s trough. They have a right to be cynical.

    10. Not sure why you even comment anymore. Everytime its the same old lines…
      “Working in fire is a choice…..find something else” and many on here keep pointing it out that people ARE finding something else, hence the staffing shortages. Are you not paying attention? While staffing shortages may equal more assignments, more OT, more opportunities for those that have stayed it also equals longer than normal expected days away, more assignments than in the past The fires aren’t pausing while we regrouping. Read the article above about lack of Radio techs and comms…do you think that’s OK? Just suck it up? the C in LCES is low priority? It lack of ground pounders, overhead, logs, dispatchers…all critical elements for the group effort to contain an incident. It didn’t just happen in the last 2 years the wheels have slowly been coming off over at least the last decade one lug nut at a time. We lack people to fill teams because of retirements and nobody to fill the gap because of shorter and shorter staffing newer folks couldn’t get away from their module,crew, engine, aircraft to pursue higher quals or different support quals. Nobody is just making this up…they’re not lying…we’re short bodies and we need to buy more and frankly they cost more.

      BTW do you just rent your house? Because if you own…well its weird you think it’s some sort of sense of entitlement for people (people who chose the same career you did) to expect to be able to save up enough to be able purchase a home…in CA or anywhere else in the west where prices have shot up.

  5. So, this has been bothering me for some time…Why is it if I go on a Superfund Site, I need proper PPE, but if that same Superfund Site is on fire, 100s of firefighters can go on that same property, with no PPE? Or why is it if local firefighters that take less than 30 mins to put out a house fire has all this equipment, but a wildland firefighter who may breath dangerous chemicals may breath toxins in for 2-3 months, but only has a bandana? Just curious!

  6. Hiring problems have caused many Nationwide vacant positions that provide Logistical Support is directly effecting proper staffing of fires that drastically affect safety on the fireline . Problem is these vacancies require Journeyman level capabilities and putting the title on unqualified people just causes more problems and dangerous situations.

    Here is one example that points out problems that have been building over recent years and was bad enough to warrant a SafeNet, there are more that have not been reported. https://safenet.nifc.gov/view_safenet.cfm?id=47170

    I’ll also say I don’t like the way Fire has changed and is being run, mood is different and its not as fun as it used to be. I miss the Pre All Risk fire management days.

  7. I know more than 8 GS-4 through GS-6 and a few above who quit due to vaccine mandates and ridiculous nonsensical covid policy, as well as the poor pay and massive time away from home.

  8. One major issue that I have noticed that is detrimental to the fire organization are the new breed of “Line Officers”.

    Rangers and the like used to be salts of the earth types. They got their hands dirty, they did the pushups, they were saturated in the lands that were their charge. They had respect because they had the chops to back up their decisions.

    That is all gone now. Modern day Rangers are part of the gentry. They are soft carpet walkers that are at home behind a keyboard but won’t hesitate to flex hubris. They think they know everything except they have no power beyond position power which is a terrible hand to play.

    Modern Rangers throw around acronyms and buzzwords like they are a substitute for tangible experience. They are part of the hegemony and not respected in the least. They prefer manicures over callouses.

    1. Agreed 100% with your comments. Not just Rangers but many line officer held positions working in an environment on the couch at home surrounded by Teams Meetings and emails instead of the “Land”.

  9. I find these statements contradicting:

    “you all are not experiencing any thing new, you just talk about it more”

    But…..???

    “our kids are now way behind in their education, many small business have shut their doors forever, supply chain issues with far reaching impacts have hit all of us , printed money like it was free, many lost their jobs because they chose the right over the wrong”

    “many are now living w/ PTSD, because they were locked in, lost loved ones w/ out being able to say good by”

    You may be correct that fighting fire isn’t “harder”….but life IS.

  10. Broken record….
    I do not at all think that wanting to have your own home is in any way entitlement, all should have that opportunity afforded to them…..All that I am saying is that it would be great if we paid our FF’s a decent living wage out the gate, work hard, scrimp and save every penny you can and just maybe one day you can afford to put a down payment on a home no matter where you live, in todays economy and lack of a decent income, it is made near impossible to do. I would like to think that by the time you promote to a GS-7-8-9 and or higher you can do just that, but to think that you should be able to but a home at the entry level is not realistic in any profession you choose. well most professions ie. Blue Collar.
    We pinched and saved evry penny we could to buy a single wide mobile home on a GOVT compound, then we saved every penny we could to buy a run down foreclosure that took a lot of work. Yes we baby boomers, how dare we work our tails off to have a piece of the American dream…..Yes I own a nice home in a great part of the country, we earned it, heck even my kids tell me that they will be glad when we boomers are gone, kinda sad……when we are gone, then just maybe gone is a great generation….Oh….we will not take with us our 80% of the wealth….our kids get that…..lol…..
    I fully get that there are real issues for you all, it’s real…..heck you all do not even have enough radio techs to keep folks safe on fires, that was never an issue in my day……yep…..things are in dire straights……

    Looks like my last post was taken down……I never want to offend anyone with my comments….really…..
    All the best Broken record….

    1. I haven’t seen anybody say they expect to buy a house immediately starting the job. But 5 years in it should look obtainable and 5 years later a very real possibility. But currently its not…the staffing shortages have boosted being able to get to GS 7-8-9 in a shorter amount of time but thats not always good thing either.

      Its hard to compare this career field to other industries…its a bit unique. Its not like the private sector where most can settle in one area and its not exactly the military either where theyre ordered to where they’re going to live. But usually an E-5 in the military can get a housing allowance (BAH) or base housing at any rank and they have dependants. That’s right off the bat if they enlist and they already have dependants, or typically takes 6 years to make E-5 shorter time for some. I’m not saying Firefighters fed or state need exactly that but something comparable….or we could forgo all the complication of all that and make the pay a lot better the military is much larger and if we can fund those incentives/needs…we can get our firefighters a decent bump.

      To me it appears the main problem has been that tackling the retention and pay issue has never been sat down and planned out long term…they just keep throwing quick fixes at it. In my opinion eliminating temp and career seasonals and making it all perm isn’t the solution…a few seasons of figuring out this career and if it’s what one wants to do long term isn’t a bad thing, but there needs to be clear and direct paths that make it worth it for those that do pull the trigger and want to do it for 20+ years.

      Personally I’m good…we have decent housing, facilities, seasons with a good amount of fires, and leadership that’s not too demanding of our time. But I have worked elsewhere and know of places where that’s not the case and can sympathize with those that are in those spots, my own co workers lower on the pay scale and those with families…at least the ones that are still around.

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