Legislation could lengthen allowed federal wildland firefighter retirement break in service

It also addresses in a very limited way the rental rates of government housing

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Firefighter bucks burning log
Firefighter bucks burning log. Northwest Area Coordination Center photo. 2022.

A bill to be introduced in the Senate would ensure that a federal wildland firefighter would not forfeit previously made contributions or eligibility for firefighter retirement if they have a voluntary break in service of less than 9 months. Some employees have been surprised after returning to their firefighter job after having to take care of children or other family members, to learn that the break in firefighter retirement coverage reset the clock. Their previous work as a firefighter no longer counted toward firefighter retirement and their 20-year period of covered work began again. It could be argued, why is there any limit on the break in service. Or, why couldn’t it be 5 years or 10 years?

Another provision will place a cap on a Federal wildland firefighter’s rent when they are required to occupy government housing. The maximum limit would be 40 percent of the person’s pre-tax salary. This is thought to affect a limited number of federal wildland firefighters, primarily in the National Park Service. The legislation says this change would be implemented “notwithstanding OMB Circular No. A-45R” which states, “rents and other charges may not be set so as to provide a housing subsidy, serve as an inducement in the recruitment or retention of employees, or encourage occupancy of existing Government housing.”

The rent for federal government housing is required by the OMB Circular to be “based upon an impartial study of comparable private rental housing.”

Nationally, rents rose a record 11.3 percent last year, according to real estate research firm CoStar Group.

The bill was announced Wednesday by U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Chair of the committee Joe Manchin (D-WV). It is titled “Promoting Effective Forest Management Act of 2022.”

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters played a part in getting these provisions into the proposed legislation. Kelly Martin, President, said she looks at them as placeholders or starting points.

There will be opportunities as it is being considered to modify the language, perhaps for example, to eliminate the break in service restriction for firefighter retirement coverage, and determine a method for setting housing rental rates that GS-3 firefighters making about $2,200 a month can afford, whether or not the employee is required to stay in government housing.

With difficulties in recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters, and hundreds of vacant positions, it may be time to modify the OMB Circular to allow rental rates to “serve as an inducement in the recruitment or retention of employees.”

The bill has not been introduced in the Senate yet and could be subjected to changes and amendments if it makes it that far through the process. It has several provisions that could garner votes from Republicans, such as quadrupling mechanical thinning targets, streamlining environmental reviews, and increasing grazing. Half a dozen organizations associated with logging submitted statements supporting the bill.

Other provisions in the legislation:

  • The FS shall develop a program that provides incentives for employees to grow in place without relocating.
  • The FS will be required to reduce the number of relocations of line officers, in order to increase the period of time that they work at a duty station.
  • The FS and the BLM are required to double their mechanical thinning targets by 2025 and quadruple them by 2027.
  • It allows counties and local governments to intervene in lawsuits intended to stop wildfire prevention projects on nearby National Forests.
  • It places a $100,000 cap on employee relocation expenses.
  • Job applicants will be solicited in a manner that does not limit eligibility to current Forest Service employees.
  • The FS shall work with States to develop a universal, tiered program to train people to enter the logging workforce, and to examine ways to facilitate apprenticeship training opportunities.
  • Within three years of passage of the legislation, every FS and BLM unit must use at least one of six streamlining methods for environmental review on a forest management project.
  • The Forest Service and the BLM are directed to develop a strategy to increase the use of grazing as a wildfire mitigation tool.

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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.

24 thoughts on “Legislation could lengthen allowed federal wildland firefighter retirement break in service”

  1. I was a primary firefighter and paid into FF that extra % for 10 years from each check. I was a hotshot, a sawyer, a squad leader and acting captain. I was a foreman on an engine. I slept with my face in the dirt to catch extra zzz’s, humped saws up hills steeper than a goat’s ass, and worked 72 hour shifts on running fires. I worked a 1000 hours + each summer in overtime. I was a firefighter. I had a 5 month break in service to care for a baby and then ailing mother who suffered a stroke. I needed to quit to care for them and also have access to my TSP money to perform familial responsibilities. But 5 months later, I went back to work in a secondary job. The rest of my career was in Fire and I was always in a covered FF position. But I do not qualify for FF retirement and I have forfeited the extra money I gave into FF from each check for 10 years. Yeah, that break in service rule is a breaker alright.

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  2. I would like to see this as a priority. I have been a federal firefighter for 25 years. In 2006 My son was diagnosed with Cancer and I had to make the choice to either stay with the Gov or take care of my ailing child. Needless to say I had a 3 year break in service. This is going to cost me many more years of service since the current policy doesn’t allow for this kind of absence. It is a shame that we are treated the way we are and penalized for managing the work life balance. As a rough calculation for overtime worked in the last 25 years I would say my career already, based on hours is close to 35 years worked. Our personal lives suffer. Why not make the retirement benefits available after a break in service?
    We keep getting kicked and still do the job. I am in awe of the integrity from the workforce in this field. Just remember that everyone has a braking point. It is already showing up in our recruitment and retention and as of now is only getting worse.

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    1. Eric, If you had/have more than 20 years of special retirement coverage service, then you are vested in the special retirement. You don’t need to worry about primary/secondary at that point, as you have earned the max special retirement under FERS. What may impact you is the ability to retire at 50, or any age with 25 years of service and draw a full pension with the special supplement. However, if you intend to continue working past 50, it could be a good thing to not be in a primary/secondary position, as you will no longer pay the extra .5% into the retirement program, but you still get credit for 1% per year worked.

      Retirement for Wildland Firefighters is complicated, even more so given so many folks start as Temps. You absolutely need to take the retirement classes put on by HR and various Unions to understand how simple life events can impact you.

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    2. This is the arcane OPM policy gap we desperately hope to close with this legislative bill. If you don’t have 25 years and any age and you don’t meet 50 and 20 then you may be forced to resign to care for children, elderly parents or a spouse if your leave exceeds FMLA, annual and sick leave. You should not be forced to resigned and lose your earned retirement benefits to provide extended care giving for family members. Once your family situation stabilizes and you are able to return to work, you should be able to restart your Service Computation Date for firefighter retirement from the date that you left federal service. This change in OPM policy not only benefits the employee as a retention incentive but it benefits the tax payers as the federal government would be able to ‘rehire’ and recapture a significant investment in a well trained, uniquely experienced and highly qualified employee to finish their wildland firefighter career and add tremendous value to our agencies and our communities which we know critically need highly qualified wildland fire field leaders for the foreseeable future

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  3. One thing to know is that if you had prior primary FF position those years will still count if you had a break in service and jumped back into a primary FF position. Happened to me, 2 years primary FF, then left to temp jump, came back into secondary position unknown on FF retirement, figured it out after 2 years and realized I needed to go back to primary FF position. Had HR open up retirement case audit and after some hard fought time, got credit for those 2 years of previous FF time. Would suggest have a retirement audit done and save those findings for future. It’s lame, up we are our own advocates for our retirement…

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  4. There’s a lot to unpack here…

    1) Housing – There is a housing shortage at the NPS and FS. So, many employees are having live in towns outside of their park or forest. There are positives and negatives of living off-site. But, the biggest problem is cost of living. I know we have talked about this a lot but a GS-5 making $17.31 cannot afford to live in a town where the starting cost of a house is $500,000 or rent is over $6,000/mo. So, my suggestion is that OPM make changes to the cost of living adjustments. If the park and/or forest are not going to build more housing, than they need to take a look at who is in housing. In most cases, a GS-12 can afford to live off-site, they can afford a new car, afford to pay for gas, but a GS-3, 4, 5 cannot. I get it! I get it! There are people who feel they deserve to live there, but if the NPS/FS is not going to pay people better than they need provide incentives. We should not be working full-time and homeless. I know! I know! It’s a different way of looking at things. Treat people well and they will stay. But if you don’t treat people well they will leave.

    2)The FS shall develop a program that provides incentives for employees to grow in place without relocating. Sounds good, but I’m not sure how you would do this. The way it is now, someone has to quit, retire, or die to get a promotion. Look, I like the idea of “acting” or “detailing”, but let’s be honest here. The only people who get to detail are “pets”. If you’re not a “pet” you’re not going to get training, you’re not going to get a detail. You can change until you acknowledge you have a problem.

    3) The FS will be required to reduce the number of relocations of line officers, in order to increase the period of time that they work at a duty station. Hum! Interesting! I guess this would reduce the cost in TOS or PCS. Which brings up a good question, why do some people get TOS or PCS and others get nothing? Why not say, if you make over X amount you don’t qualify for TOS or PCS? It just seems to me that the wrong people are getting TOS or PCS. Now that I pissed off all the GS-12s….

    4) The FS and the BLM are required to double their mechanical thinning targets by 2025 and quadruple them by 2027. This too will be difficult in some states where agencies have to get permits.

    5) It places a $100,000 cap on employee relocation expenses. Wow! $100,000! Who is spending $100,000 to move? I mean, the taxes on that is what? $20,000-$30,000. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, move yourself. Reallocate that money to help a GS-3,4,5 to move.

    6) Job applicants will be solicited in a manner that does not limit eligibility to current Forest Service employees. This is interesting too! Start by looking at the cert. Then look at the questions on USAJobs and ask yourself can anyone qualify for this job? Oh, and stop making people take that 3 hr personally test.

    My last comment, BLM, NPS, and FS you need to take a hard look at your policies. If you’re not going to follow them than change them. Start looking at your employees as resources. If you don’t treat them right the good ones, the smart ones, will leave. Also, BLM, NPS,and FS make the changes yourself, don’t wait on Congress. I always thought y’all were suppose to be stewards leaders. Why not start now? Peace Out!!!

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  5. To respond to Hoby Millers statement my true retirement story would have been a 30 year career if I had stuck out.

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  6. Leave, whether paid or not, does not count as a break in service. Anyone asserting this, whether they work for HR or not is mistaken. The issue is leaving a firefighter retirement covered position for more than 3 days and not returning to a primary fire covered position initially on your return. Kelly Martin and Former 0462 provide accurate inoformation in their comments.

    The question unanswered by HR on whether a former employee would be able to buy back service credit for temp time after 1989, this is due to the unknowable terms of unpassed legislation. Lobby your Congressional reps.

    Also, share your true retirement story with people when they make comments about your “plush early retirement.” My true story will be 32 years of firefighting at 50.

    “Yeah, but you only had to fight fires/work for half the year.” That’s true, it’s also true that I worked nearly six months of OT during that time, on top of working second jobs in the winter. I also worked 8 years before my premier employer offered me ANY benefits beyond 1 day of leave per month.

    I have continued working over 500 hours of OT since I began working year round. This will be the equivalent of an extra 6 years of work if I step out at 25 years of PERMANENT service, 32 seasons of firefighting, and the equivalent of 38 years of hours worked.

    That’s what “early” retirement actually looks like as a federal wildland firefighter.

    I’ve fought fire with two coworkers who died in a helicopter crash (these are people I knew, not counting the smoke I have seen of other bodies burning) and 4 people who have taken their own lives. (Two were shortly after retirement.) 2 more died of cancer in the last year. I have been struck by a snag, broke my back and gotten zero workers comp, despite 20 years of nagging back pain and joint dysfunction and still counting.

    Feeling like an “early” “retirement” where I have to go start a second career, is just the decent way to treat our citizens who serve.

    If they offer temp buy back, it may be worth it, but the devil is in the details. Some versions have us paying the gov’s share of FERS as well, which would be fairly worthless unless it makes you eligible to leave 5 years earlier, I guess.

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  7. After 21 seasons (6 as a 1039 & 15 as a PSE) with the BLM and the FS, I hung up my Nomex on August 19th, 2022, without earning the consolation prize of fire fighter retirement, with 9 years left before I was eligible for retirement, I have moved on to a new career. I just couldn’t work for the Forest Service anymore. My mental health was suffering, I was pretty stress out most of the time and work to life balance was all out of whack. The FF retirement was the golden hand cuffs that kept me in the FS for the last 3 years, until I realized with an almost 5-year-old daughter that I was not truly going to retire at 50 and would have to continue to work to support our child, but it might be in a different career. Realizing that I was going to start a new career anyways, the decision was made to leave. Which hurt because I still believed in the mission of the agency. It is good to see that congress is addressing one issue with FF retirement, but I think they can do more. With 10 years as a PSE in primary fire position and the last 5 in a secondary fire as a helicopter manager it was discouraging to find out that I would have to return to primary fire position to get back into the FF retirement. It is frustrating that the 1039 time is not considered more for retirement. Is that time as a seasonal not wear and tear on on FF bodies? The smoke, silica and carcinogens that are inhaled not damaging lungs or possibly the start of many of the forms of cancer that plague WFFs? With the lack of information on what happens when you have a break in service, I wanted to share some questions that I asked in several emails to ASC. The questions and answers are as follows:

    Tuesday, July 26, 2022 8:38 AM

    ASC HR- I have been assigned to your case #XXXXXXXX.  The case states:

    Former 0462 -I am considering leaving the FS. I am currently in a secondary fire position. If I have a break in service can I return to a primary or secondary fire position in the future, I am 41 years old and have been a PSE since 2007.  At what age would I be able to draw on my retirement? what happens to my leave?

    ASC HR- If you decide to leave the FS, you must return to a primary position in order to remain eligible for the firefighter retirement.  Due to your age, you will have to consult with a Staffer concerning your firefighter eligibility.
     If you leave the FS before you are eligible for a voluntary retirement, you will be place in the regular FERS retirement category.  The eligibility requirements for regular FERS ae:
    60 years of age                     with at least 20 years of service
    62 years of age                     with at least 05 years of service
    If you do not return to the federal government, you can apply for a deferred/postponed retirement through OPM. 
    Your annual leave will be paid out in a lump sum payment if you leave the FS.

    Former 0462-Thanks for your response. If I returned to federal service in a secondary fire position I would be placed in regular FERS is that correct? What happens to my sick leave, I have heard that you will not be paid out for that for a break in service but you are for retirement. If this is true would my sick leave be paid out when I file for retirement or is it lost? There has been rumblings that seasonals (1039) may be able to buy back their time to count towards their service. If this were to happen would a former employee be able to buy back that time?
    Former 0462-If I returned to federal service in a secondary fire position I would be placed in regular FERS is that correct? 

    ASC HR- If you return to the FS in a secondary firefighter position after a break in service, yes you will be regular FERS.
     
    Former 0462-What happens to my sick leave, I have heard that you will not be paid out for that for a break in service but you are for retirement. If this is true would my sick leave be paid out when I file for retirement or is it lost? 
    ASC HR- You are correct, sick leave is not paid out.  If you decide to apply for a postponed or deferred retirement through OPM, you will get credit for your sick leave (in years and months) towards your annuity computation. 
     Former 0462-There has been rumblings that seasonals (1039) may be able to buy back their time to count towards their service. If this were to happen would a former employee be able to buy back that time?  
    ASC HR- You may make a deposit on any time prior to 01/01/1989.

    End of questions

    Hopefully this information will encourage more discussion or help a FF make an informed decision on leaving the federal fire fighting Service. Take care and good luck, I have much respect for those of you who continue to keep up the good fight.

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    1. I love your reference to the golden handcuffs. I stuck it out for a long time solely because of my FF retirement but ended up walking away due to work/life, mental health, etc.
      I’m now in a position to jump back in but it’d be back to a captain level position if I wanted to recoup my 15 of primary time. This policy is broken.

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  8. The negative impact of 4 times more mechanical treatment of hazardous fuels and doubling grazing are to much of a sacrifice for the number of people that could benefit from this bill. The seasonal and career seasonals will get the shaft either way when it comes to housing. The idea that a county could halt lawsuits against bad leasing of public lands is amazingly short sighted. The small revenue stream the smash and grab operations generate don’t even cover the hazardous materials left to be cleaned up by the agencies when the boom is over. I know it’s hard to not cut down the last mighty trees or graze the last untouched prairie but for the sake of humanity we better learn how.

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  9. Well guess I’ll see what happens. I’m in the same “boat” as others it sounds like. Had a kid this year. Worked 2 days after the birth to take care of “required” BS work and took PPL when I could between still trying to onboard employees and have a capable module for the summer. ( no one else in a position to help-VACANT) So there goes 19 years of Fire Retirement? That can’t be right but sadly it wouldn’t surprise me.

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  10. I don’t believe FMLA/PPL will affect your firefighter retirement- but better to ask a retirement specialist with your agency and make sure all your SF-50s, Block 30 states ‘M’ FERS and FICA –Special (for Firefighter and Law Enforcement Officers)

    There are numerous examples of federal wildland firefighters who have either had to resign or detail/transfer to a non-covered position for family, health, care giver reasons. Upon returning to work in a secondary position many employees have been assured, by unknowing supervisors and/or HR Specialists, they will be covered for firefighter retirement when they return to work. Unfortunately, many firefighters may not know they have been mislead until they are close to retirement and have their case file reviewed by HR only to confirm their worst nightmare that they had a break in service of more than 3 days.

    It is unacceptable to receive a letter stating you have X more years of service because of an arbitrary and capricious “3 day break in service” policy. To add insult to injury, you will also be subject to a significant financial reduction in your annuity payment when you finally do decide to retire.

    Firefighters have pleaded with Secretaries to have their case reviewed for approval for enhance retirement determination only to be told “We have no control over this policy. It’s an OPM policy that if you exceed a break in service over 3 days you have lost your existing credible firefighter service time. Ignorance is no excuse for the law”. Yes, this is an archaic, bureaucratic policy in desperate need of revision and needs our laser focus now more than ever before.

    One other nuance that gets people trapped in the end, if you move from a primary to secondary position and you have less than 3 full years as a primary firefighter you will not be eligible for firefighter retirement.

    Here is the essence of this bill provision: remove the “3-day break in service”; allow employees to come back to work, without penalty, to finish their career under firefighter retirement – could be 2 years, could be 5 years – details yet to be determined. This is an earned employee benefit AND it also tremendously benefits the tax payers to recapture this specialize workforce in an effort to retain and promote urgently needed frontline field going wildland firefighter supervisors.

    Refer to page 42
    https://www.opm.gov/retirement-services/publications-forms/csrsfers-handbook/c046.pdf

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    1. What Kelly said here, about secondary coverage, is where the issue truly is… You can only get secondary coverage when you come directly from a primary coverage position, with no more that three days break in service, and must have 3 years continuous coverage in that primary position. Without meeting those conditions, even if the PD for the slot is secondary, you are not eligible for the coverage. You can get the coverage back by going back to primary for three years, again, and then move back to secondary, but you also must meet all the eligibility conditions for the primary slot.

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    2. I’m someone who lost my FF retirement for the reasons that Kelly mentioned. I had 10 years in primary fire, then left the agency after having a child. A major reason I resigned was that my husband and I were both primary fire and there isn’t a pathway for a woman in fire to take a temporary, non-punitive transition away from their position for their child’s infancy stage.

      I returned to the agency when a position came up that was suitable. The supervisor assured me that I would maintain my fire retirement if I accepted the position because I had 10 years in primary fire, and the job in question was a secondary fire job.

      It wasn’t until I was several months into the job that I was informed by HR that I would not be receiving my FF retirement. Everyone I dealt with explained it as an “unfortunate technicality.” Being handed an additional 10 more years of work due to an “unfortunate technicality” is insanity.

      In my career I had been on an engine, and hotshot crew, I had rappelled, and jumped. I had 2 surgeries associated with injuries on the job, and all the other wear and tear associated with those fire positions. The reason we are receiving a 20 year FF retirement is because of that wear and tear from doing this work. Those long term effects don’t magically go away because of an “unfortunate technicality.”

      I was ready to quit the moment they told me this information because I was angry and felt like I had been swindled. I stuck it out for a while, but ultimately left again just over a year later.

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  11. Can someone explain in detail the FMLA/PPL rule that was mentioned? My wife had a baby back in 2021 and I used what I believe was paid parental leave. I didn’t use all of what was allotted but I was being paid the entire time. I never once used LWOP. Thanks in advance.

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  12. There is a model out there lawmakers could look at that attempts to address “employee” housing costs:

    (MilitaryTimes.com – Sept. 22 ) The Defense Department’s personnel chief unveiled a list of initiatives Thursday aimed at improving quality of life for service members, including — for the second year in a row — a temporary boost in Basic Allowance for Housing for some active duty members.

    In many markets, the housing allowance, which is adjusted at the start of each calendar year, has not kept up with the soaring cost of housing, according to a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In 28 Military Housing Areas, the allowance falls short of the actual cost of housing by more than 20%.

    Full article at: https://www.militarytimes.com/pay-benefits/2022/09/22/housing-allowances-are-about-to-go-up-for-more-than-100k-troops/

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  13. I have been using “Paid parental leave” or FMLA (with a phone call to ASC this morning found this out) throughout the summer to give me an extra day or week off with my newborn. The previous 9 year now are subtracted from my retirement calculator. I didn’t use all the time off because I still had to make OT to survive, and as an integral cog in the machine of fire for my module I worked 800 hours of it. What a joke. This of all the things is going to be the thing to finally push me out the door. Thank you WO RO DO just a terrible terrible agency.

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    1. Nine years of retirement coverage obliterated as if it never occurred. I am so sorry this happened to you. Unfortunately you are not the first federal wildland firefighter to be blindsided by this ridiculous policy.

      The Federal land management agencies, OPM, and Congress must fix this.

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      1. My case was elevated and the HR couldn’t imagine this was real but PPL is FMLA and if it counts as a “break in service” it will probably be the straw that broke the camels back.

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        1. Wait what? I spent over two months on PPL last winter and have been using it periodically since and nothing changed on my retirement calculator. I know a few other firefighters who have taken it and I’ve never heard of anyone losing their retirement over it. You’re still in pay status in your primary/secondary position so it is not a break in service. I’d get it if you invoked FMLA and took a bunch of LWOP but not PPL. Keep fighting that!

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        2. FMLA is not a break in service, unless HR issues a SF50 off you (or the agency) submitting an SF52. If they attempt to say you have a break in service for using LEAVE, then you need to stop talking to HR, get your union involved (if you have one) and go directly to the merit board. HR should know better by now.

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    2. It is almost as if the OPM and the agencies formed a work group to create ways to screw over employees, and this break in service bullshit was one of the crown jewels in their list of accomplishments.

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  14. Another example of bad public policy. A few quick fixes to absurd problems for forestry techs meanwhile you still have crews staffed at 50 to 70% as the norm. Homeless seasonals all the way up to assistants and squadies on almost every resource. Difficulty recruiting. So none of the underlying problems are resolved but you get a massive increase in targets, so more of us in operations get pushed towards project work or collateral contracting officers while more and more funding is siphoned off into the private forestry sector. Sometimes it feels like the W.O. And our Washington leadership aren’t just negligent but absolutely hate us…

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