Several issues important to wildland firefighters discussed during Senate Hearing Thursday

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sept. 29, 2022.

During a hearing today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a number of issues important to federal wildland firefighters were discussed. The two witnesses from the agencies were John Crockett, Associate Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, Forest Service, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Department of the Interior.

We don’t have time to get into the details, but here are the points at which some key topics were covered in the video above, which shows the entire hearing:

  • 45:19. Three-day break in service which can result in a firefighter (FF) losing eligibility for FF retirement.
  • 49:50. Forest Service counting the same acres of fuel treatments multiple times.
  • 54:47. FF mental health.
  • 1:00:00. Protecting Giant Sequoias from fire during their 3,000-year life span.
  • 1:06:30. How many firefighting aircraft do the agencies have?
  • 1:22:20. FF pay, and a long term solution.
  • 1:27:50 and again at 1:37:30. A possible new requirement for air tankers to have pressurized cabins.
  • 1:33:45. Why have the agencies not accomplished more acres of fuel treatments?

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters clipped portions of the hearing, as you’ll see in the short videos below.

Senator Murkowski asks the USFS and DOI about long-term pay for Federal Wildland Firefighters:

Senator Heinrich asks the DOI what they are doing for Firefighter Mental Health:

Forest Service and DOI Respond to Three-Day Break In Service Issue for Wildland Firefighters:

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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.

21 thoughts on “Several issues important to wildland firefighters discussed during Senate Hearing Thursday”

  1. Mr Crocket sounded erudite and coherent. Mr Rupert sounded like he was scrambling for the right vapid placations.
    One thing is for sure, if they don’t figure out the pay issue there will be a levy bursting exodus from the agencies the likes of which nobody has ever seen. The absolute worst thing you can do is give someone a raise (sorry, “incentive”) and then jerk it away. That will prove fatal to agencies suppression AND fuels efforts and thereby cause irreparable harm to the public at large.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong but It happened before (10% retention bonus in R5 came and went). Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it happens.

  3. Some won’t but a lot will. Many that hold high level single resource qualls like ICT1,2,3, OSC, RXB2/1, AITS, ATGS etc etc will walk. My resignation letter and exit plan are already poised and I will submit my SF52 immediately and leave.

    Fire is a small world and I have many colleagues that are planning to punch out too. These are quals that take 20+ years to obtain and are not easily replaceable.

    Folks used to be apprehensive to abruptly leave but now there are SO many options in the municipal sector that pay much better so it makes perfect sense cut away.

  4. I am beyond grateful to the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.  Without them none of this progress or conversation would be happening.  Thank you. 

    As for the problem at large with Federal Wildland Firefighters… the level of disconnect between our Washington Office, Regional Offices and reality is reaching unprecedented levels of absurdity. The Agency’s 10-year strategy “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forest” is a hollow shell.  And the pace and scale outlined in the National Prescribed Fire Program Review recommendations and solutions for moving forward are NOT attainable.  We do NOT have the workforce.  We do not have the firefighters to match the fire threat.  We do not have anywhere close to the Firefighters to implement the 10-year strategy from a vegetation management standpoint.  Until recruitment and retention are resolved we will continue to furiously tread water… and some folks are going to drown.  We cannot staff our engines, patrols, hotshot crews, aircraft, leadership positions or fuels positions.  There are currently Resource Orders going unfilled and we are at a National Preparedness Level 2.  A PL2!  This is insane.  If the 2022 fire season would have produced the way most predicted, we would have experienced death, destruction, and tragedy on a level we have yet to know.

    If the BIL incentive $20,000 or 50% dissolves before there is a long-term solution… residents of the West better have their emergency evacuation bags packed.  What broken remnants remain of the Federal Wildland Firefighting programs are going to implode.  Incident Management teams…UTF.  DIVS…UTF.  TFLD…UTF.  IHC’s…UTF.  Engines…UTF.  Air resources…UTF.  And on and on…

    Additionally, I appreciate the mental health discussion and believe it truly warrants the time and energy its receiving.  I also believe that for many Federal Firefighters that do not meet the clinical definition of PTSD or other career related mental health diagnosis some of these challenges could be prevented by SUPPORTING THE FIREFIGHTERS!  We no longer take care of our folks.  Improve work/life balance, presumptive health care, pay and support the men and women that do this job, and the sustainability of these programs will slowly rebuild from the brink of extinction.  People need to feel good about what they do.  And when you work for an Agency whose actions over the course of decades, have shown that they do not understand, appreciate, or value their Firefighters; Its hard to feel good about what you do.  We have relied on individuals with a strong moral compass to continue to make it work.  Doing more with less… over and over and over.  Well, were past the breaking point.  Times have changed.  The job has changed.  We’re routinely watching entire communities and watersheds disappear off the face of the earth.  When you never have the resources to do your job the moral compass’s magnetic pull seems to fade.  You can only fail so many times before you must pull back, reassess, and develop a new strategy… in this case working somewhere you feel you can be effective.  Local staffing – not enough resources.  Initial Attack – not enough resources.  Incident response – not enough resources.  Prescribed fire – not enough resources.  FEDERAL WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS ARE ON THE THREATENED AND ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST.

    Be part of the solution
    If you’re a Firefighter:
    1. Support the people fighting for you. If you haven’t realized… the folks chasing their high 3 aren’t your advocates.
    2. Write your elected officials.
    3. Keep doing the best you can.
    4. Resign.

    If you’re general public:
    1. Thank you for being informed.  I genuinely believe that the stability of the American West is at stake.  If you feel inclined to advocate for Federal Firefighters, my hats off to you.  Thanks.

  5. Who will mentor, train and teach you? Who will sign off not only your single resource boss, but all your other PTB’s?

  6. LP, just curious, where exactly will you go? Not asking for a specific name of a company, agency, dept, etc but more general – state/county/municipal job? Private contractor? Just sign up as an AD?

  7. Bumpin by, yep, the r5 retention bonus definitely came and went, I got it a few paychecks then it was gone.
    Apparently retention improved enough lololol

  8. LOL no there’s not. Maybe there’s plenty of Temps waiting in primo locations and in their local area. But those of us in some “undesirable” locations are so understaffed in perm and temp positions and not getting any applicants HR is basically not even bothering to fly the positions on USAjobs anymore. From GS5 all the way to 9. So those plenty of Temps waiting are more than welcome to apply to places in the desert, remote mountain stations, and podunk towns….we’ll gladly accept their apps and give em a shot.

  9. Stan,
    There are many options. Many larger municipal depts are trying to get in on the wildland game and/or build their existing programs, they’re paying top dollar. Additionally, there are a lot of aerial firefighting companies that are paying extremely well. AD is dying, if it isn’t already dead. Going AD is a sure fire way to rip yourself off. It’s an archaic retirement vehicle for many bit times have drastically changed, if you go AD you leave a lot of $$$$ on the table.

    Personally, I have a job lined up with a private aviation company. You see, there are BILLIONS of dollars involved in wildland fire. The vast majority of those dollars end up in the pockets of contractors, definitely not fed employees. It’s high time we all get our proper share of this enormous, decadent pie.

  10. “All the way to GS9”. You realize that a GS9 is only $54k a year!? A soft goods manager at Target makes $60k and only requires 1 year of experience and no “qualls”. That is the problem, too many are dazzled with a “GS 9 or a GS 11” but, truth is, those are both sh__ wages for someone that has 20 years in a career. It’s a joke.

  11. Thanks for putting together the highlights Bill. It seems like the USFS has gotten grilled the last couple of years, while Jeff Rupert and the DOI have done a good job avoiding the hot-seat..Rupert is definitely not as cool under fire as his compatriots in the USFS.

  12. Stan,

    Simple, private or municipal. Fire is like a micro version of defense/war. People make a LOT of money in the defense industry, the soldiers make sh__. The best way to make $ is to go private industry as they get the lions share of the Fire Pie. Think Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrup, Blackwater, etc etc etc.

    Municipals all see the money too and they’re hiring wildland people to bolster their orgs. They pay 2-3x what the Feds do. AD is dead and or dying. The worst thing you can do is the AD gig. It’s popular with the older crowd since it used to be the only option but BOY have times changed! You would be a sucker to do the AD thing, you would leave so much $ on the table.

    Personally, I have a job lined up with a private company and they’re paying about twice as much as a GS14 makes…with full bennies.

  13. As a former USFS Line Officer for 17 years, I found it very discouraging to listen to Congressional Hearing representatives of the USFS and DOI, either read from a Sec.-reviewed testimony or rambling nonsense from the other. Nothing was direct to the points asked. And the worst comments of all were “we need to get back to you” or “we’re looking forward to working with you on that.” For God’s sake, send speakers that have their act together and can speak coherently to the questions. These testimonies are an embarrassment to those in the field, most all of whom know the real issues and want direct answers when Members truly want to fix the problems.
    Lawsuits are a damn big problem and the ERJA needs to be modified so “we” the public aren’t paying lawyers to sue the agencies;
    USFWS oversight is a damn big problem and is a doubling down by government agencies when agency bios have signed off on projects as meeting the intent;
    Workforce Capacity is a damn big problem with both sufficient fire fighters but also with the required skills to put forth timber sales. There is an agency derth of these skills and it’s existed for over 20 years!
    The failure of the Secretary of Agriculture to NAME THE FOREST CRISIS FOR WHAT IT IS: A NATIONALEMERGENCY!! We are losing our forests and no one seems to give two cents about it. What’s the matter with the USDA Department head, yes, that’s the Sec.?
    Whether it is 63 million acres or 90 million, as some say, its most definitely a CRISIS!!
    Do what we the public are paying you to do to save our forests and keep them healthy, and quit the worthless jargon and dodging of the issues.
    And, one last point, when the Department & Congress agreed to CENTRALIZE Personnel Management as well as Contracting for the USFS, YOU BUILT IN INEFFICIENCIES for hiring and for specific and timely contracting.
    These are the facts. Face up to it.

  14. DR look at your pay stub. You should have two SCDs — one for your perm entry and one for your FF retirement entry (they could be the same date if your first perm job was covered by FF retirement). But to really find out, open a ticket with your HR department and ask for your firefighter retirement status.

What do you think?