KEY MESSAGES from the U.S. Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management

I have no idea where this came from,
I just found it in the bushes outside my house this morning.

KEY MESSAGES from the Forest Service!

Firefighter and public safety are our top priorities during a wildfire.

      • The Forest Service uses all available strategies and tools to manage wildfires.
      • Our fire managers make sound, science-based, risk-informed decisions.
      • Flying drones near wildfires is dangerous for pilots and firefighters and can bring wildfire suppression efforts to a halt. Know before you fly. If you fly, we can’t.
      • Wildfires create smoke, which can impact communities. Check for updates.

The Forest Service is committed to a strong firefighting response this year.

  • We are providing 900 engines, up to 29 airtankers, more than 200 helicopters and many other fixed wing support aircraft (lead planes, multi-engine water scoopers and smokejumper aircraft). We can also mobilize eight C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) and a limited number of other airtankers through agreements with Canada and Australia.
  • We will have more than 80 Forest Service Hotshot crews available. Contracted crews include 40 Type 2 IA and more than 400 Type 2 crews Forty-four interagency complex incident management teams are available, as well as significant logistical support services under contract including mobile food and shower units.
  • Our goal is to have 11,300 wildland firefighters onboard before the peak of the fire year. These men and women will be highly trained in emergency response and quickly adapting to changing situations. Our goal is to minimize the number of devastating, destructive large wildland fires.
  • Forest Service firefighters and managers make informed decisions based on science and risk assessments to safely deploy firefighting resources to suppress fires that threaten lives or property.
  • Federal, state, tribal and local resources, supported by available airtankers and helicopters, collaborate to contain fires.
  • That’s why about 98% of wildland fires are contained within 24 hours of the initial response and fewer than 2% grow into the larger fires we often see in the media.

Wildland firefighters play a crucial role on the frontlines of the wildfire crisis,
and we must take better care of them.

Firefighter Pay, Benefits and Housing:
  • Our focus is on increased pay and benefits, better housing, increased access to mental and physical health resources, and improved work-life balance.
  • Agency leaders are fighting for a permanent pay fix for wildland firefighters that more accurately reflects the difficult and dangerous work they do for the American people.
  • The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has provided wildland firefighters with a pay supplement since FY2022 that equals an extra $20,000 per year or 50% of their base pay, whichever is less.
  • Although FY2024 Forest Service appropriations continues the firefighter pay supplement, Congress must pass legislation to make a permanent pay solution a reality. If base pay returns to previous levels (sometimes as low as $15 per hour), the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council expects 30-50% of Forest Service wildland firefighters to seek higher-paying jobs.
  • The President’s FY2025 budget provides $216 million to implement a permanent pay increase for the wildland firefighter workforce, providing a more equitable wage, enhancing recruitment, and stabilizing retention.
  • In addition, the President’s budget proposes $25 million to address the urgent need for suitable employee housing through needed maintenance and repairs of Forest Service housing units.

Forest Service 2024 Fire Key Messages:

Firefighter Mental and Physical Health

  • Long, extreme fire years and the difficult and dangerous nature of wildland firefighting requires investing in mental health and wellbeing tools and services to ensure wildland firefighters can successfully confront and manage the mental and physical aspects of their mission.
  • The Forest Service has several reforms underway to provide better support to wildland firefighters, including an improved Employee Assistance Program that includes more trauma-trained and rural-based support, telehealth options, a smartphone app for quick access to services, and expanded proactive and preventive mental health and wellness and family services.
  • Working alongside the Department of the Interior, we continue to implement the Joint Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing Program to specifically address the unique experiences and mental and physical health challenges of wildland firefighters. This relatively new program will establish year-round prevention and mental health training, provide post-traumatic stress care, and enhance capacity for critical incident stress management — and create a new system of trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention.

The Forest Service takes the challenge of hiring and retaining firefighters very seriously.
  • The DOI and the USDA together employ over 17,000 operational federal wildland firefighters each year. We can deploy more than 32,000 firefighters and support personnel when we include international, state, tribal, and local partners, plus contract and administratively determined (AD)  emergency hires.
  • The President’s FY2025 budget proposes $136 million for additional federal firefighting capacity (570 more permanent firefighters — and continued transition to a more fulltime workforce) to enable the Forest Service to meet the demands of the increasingly long fire year more effectively and improve the work/life balance of firefighters and support personnel.
  • These investments will help us recruit and retain the best wildland firefighters, who play a vital role in tackling today’s wildfire challenges.
  • Although we struggle to hire and retain firefighters in areas such as the Pacific Northwest and California, where the labor pool is limited and pay isn’t competitive, we have added more permanent positions in some regions through our firefighting resource modernization efforts and funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Sustaining and restoring healthy, resilient fire-adapted ecosystems will help communities reduce wildfire risk. Communities and residents also must prepare for wildfires.
  • Over a century of scientific data confirms that strategically designed fuels reduction treatments, such as mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, can reduce fire behavior and wildfire risks.
  • The Forest Service’s 10-year “Wildfire Crisis Strategy” is fueled by Congressional funding and informed by scientific research. It aims to dramatically increase forest health treatments over the next decade.
  • To be fully accountable to the “Wildfire Crisis Strategy” objectives, the Forest Service is using metrics to quantify specific outcomes of our work. We are measuring wildfire risk and landscape conditions before and after treatment to understand how our work, and other naturally occurring landscape disturbances like wildfires and insect outbreaks, is changing risk and resilience over time.

Knowing the outcomes of our fuel treatments and landscape disturbances will allow the Forest Service to:

          1. know whether we are doing the right work in the right places;
          2. communicate clearly about our “Wildfire Crisis Strategy” landscape accomplishments and
          3. ensure we are spending Congressional funding wisely.

Working with states, tribes, and other partners, the agency is focusing on protecting communities and critical infrastructure and enhancing forest resilience in areas facing the most immediate wildfire threats.

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12 thoughts on “KEY MESSAGES from the U.S. Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management”

  1. There is nothing that federal agencies do that isn’t complex anymore.

    Working within various laws, legislative schedules / funding schemes / personalities, and for and with the public and the needs and requirements imposed therein is extremely complex.

    Throw in a growing body of peer-reviewed science regarding ecosystems, climate, vegetation change, a better understanding of man’s influences on the above — and you add even more complexity to a land manager’s job.

    I for one applaud the USFS for their 2024 stated goals in terms of all aspects of wildland fire. Good goals keep an organization, its leaders, and the employees who do the work on track to achieve those goals throughout the time the goals are written for and agreed to.

    That doesn’t mean every goal is achieved. It doesn’t mean an organization is successful. A good organization is constantly evaluating its accomplishments, its processes, and maybe more important, its failures. Future goals are based on this process.

    Again, they are goals, and they should be set high. The public expects this and agencies must be honest about whether they’ve achieved a goal — and if not, why not.

    The USFS has laid out an ambitious and high bar for 2024. I would expect nothing less from an agency that manages my public lands.

    There’s a major political party in this country that hasn’t had a platform or meaningful legislative goals for years now that I know of.

    Half the country doesn’t hold them as accountable as they do the USFS.

    Hold the USFS accountable for what they accomplish toward their goals in 2024 — but you’d better be providing them input in a positive way as a citizen of this country through the many processes in place to do so before you criticize them for the goals they do develop annually.

    Get involved. Stay involved.
    Stop complaining and start doing.

    Guess I’m tired of folks nitpicking these things constantly.
    I spent 35 fire seasons working to achieve others’ goals and developing goals that others would have to meet. I helped try to achieve these goals, and I probably helped miss a few along the way. We never quit because it was too hard or too complex. That was just part of the job.

    1. Spot on Ken, one of my favorite quotes:

      “The galleries are full of critics. They play no ball, they fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down in the arena are the doers. They make mistakes because they try many things. The man who makes no mistakes lacks boldness and the spirit of adventure. He is the one who never tries anything. His is the brake on the wheel of progress. And yet it cannot be truly said he makes no mistakes, because his biggest mistake is the very fact that he tries nothing, does nothing, except criticize those who do things.”
      David M. Shoup, 22nd Commandant, USMC

  2. Some of the concepts captured here (we will do this, we are doing that) imply there is some level of control over aspects that may not be within the control of the Forest Service. There are also references to multiple time-determinate funding sources for (sometimes vastly) increasing recruitment/retention, fuels treatments, etc.

    The attitudes of our employable public in the U.S. appears to have shifted somewhat dramatically since the pandemic began. From what I am hearing from the field, they are having a tough time finding people who want to work AT ALL (in at least some) locations or doing some types of work AT ALL for the Forest Service. If people get a couple of bucks per hour more it isn’t likely to change that position much.

    I have heard incredible numbers of acres tossed out for planned fuels treatment in the west. I don’t dispute the need. There is no realistic way, though, to make even a portion of those initial and maintenance entries on all of those acres during appropriate seasonal windows even with excellent support from combinations of force account, cooperator, contractor, good neighbor, and other sources of labor and expertise. The funding is too far ahead of staffing, available resources, and administrative necessities – by the time the agency MIGHT be ready to take some serious bites out of enormous targets, the clock will have run out on the fund sources.

    To wish it so doesn’t guarantee it will happen.

    1. “This viewpoint has become a mantra among company leaders who blame high turnover on pervasive laziness among the workforce. But the truth is, in many organizations, this notion has become a cop-out for lackluster leadership and failed processes. In other words, it’s not that people don’t want to work. They just don’t want to work for you.”

      According to FORBES anyway.

      >>> approaches to hiring — which one is closer to the USFS program?

    2. Here’s a little history on that trope:

      A $15 hourly wage no longer cuts it for most workers in terms of covering basic expenses, especially as housing costs surge. Ten years ago, when the fight for $15 began, it seemed like Nirvana, but now the living wage for a family of two working adults and two children is $24.16 per hour according to MIT. To make a living wage, a single parent with two kids earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 must work 235 hours per week.

      1. The going hourly wage for my cleaning lady in this area is $35/hr. McDonalds down the road is starting newbies at $22/hr. Hope new recruits like being paid in sunsets

        1. I agree it’s tragic and if I got to be in charge for a day I’d fix it. Most firefighters I know wouldn’t clean houses for $35 an hour. Editors I know charge twice that or more. We can blame it on the FS till they change it, or Congress can make the agencies do it. BUT as long as firefighters continue to show up for shit pay, that’s what the fed agencies will pay them.

          1. I got to thinking and remembered a good quote from a 1997 interview with Jack Ward Thomas. He was asked what we need to do to improve the fire program, and he said, “We probably could start by appreciating firefighters a bit more than we have. It’s pretty hard to build a career in the fire business. The grades are not high enough, so you get diverted off into other things in order to make a decent living. If you’re going to college and fighting fire in the summertime, that’s one thing. But when you’ve got these really good firefighters that are coming back season after season, after a while you’re kind of torn up about it because you know that you’ve got them in a dead-end operation. This is like playing professional baseball or something: you can’t make it after so many years.”

            “And so you’re torn between being ecstatic when you see that you’re getting them back, and then knowing that you’re participating in keeping them hanging on year after year, when there’s nothing you can do for them. You look at these heroes out there, and everybody’s applauding at the end of the fire season — and they go home and cough for another three months. They’ve got no hospitalization, they’ve got no retirement, we don’t pay them enough — and they just keep coming back for more.”

            “You’ve got people in a tough job that doesn’t pay very well, and there’s not much room for advancement. Civil service has been devalued to the point that no matter what you do, you’re wrong. The press beat on you, and you try to make your case for the way you did it — you have to explain why you didn’t fight a fire this way or that way, and what do you hear? ‘Well, didn’t you make a mistake?’ Yeah, it’s real easy fighting one of those fires from a distance, sitting on your butt with a cold one in your hand. Enough of that and after a while you’d think firefighters would look up and say, ‘I don’t need this.'”

      1. Not intended as a joke, but my meaning is they say hey want or intend to make much more attractive FS recruitment and retention. Part of my point, however, is that many people don’t seem to want to work for the FS at all, at least in some locations and doing some types of work. It is difficult to create successful incentives when people can’t afford to/don’t want to work for the FS.


What do you think?