Poor Timing for Government Shutdown and Federal Firefighters

Guest Post
By Billy Durst

Another government shutdown looms. No one knows whether it will happen, or how long it might last if it does happen. Based on the current conflicts in Congress, particularly between House Republicans and their speaker Kevin McCarthy, many people’s gut instinct tells them that it will. The last government shutdown, in 2019, was 35 days (the longest in U.S. history), and if that is any indication of how long this might last, government employees could be facing another record-breaking furlough.

The timing couldn’t be worse for one particular group of federal employees — federal wildland firefighters, who are anxiously hoping that Congress will pass legislation that would permanently raise firefighter pay. The proposed legislation is not all that they’d hoped for, and not all that they need to make their pay commensurate with their work, but it is clear that it is all they are going to get — if they get it.

A potential worst-case scenario exists for two reasons. Reason one: temporary cash bonus payments put in place by the Biden administration, amounting to a 50 percent raise, have been in place for over a year. These temporary “retention allowances” targeting the federal wildland workforce’s retention issues, amid historically devastating fire years, are set to expire in October.

Numbers Fire Nevada wildfire Carson City Minden
Numbers Fire, July 6, 2020. Photo by Tallac Hotshots.

Reason two: if the government shutdown occurs as the existing government funding regime expires, also come October, federal wildland firefighters will be forced to continue working throughout the furlough, knowing that when the shutdown itself eventually expires, they will be returning to a 50 percent pay cut.

The best-case scenario is that the government does not shut down, that Congress passes and Biden signs the legislation in a timely manner, and that federal wildland firefighters receive the 30 percent permanent pay increase proposed by the pending legislation. No matter what happens come October, these federal firefighters will receive at least a 20 percent reduction in pay. This inevitable pay reduction of 20-50 percent will occur despite the fact that firefighters’ work is more necessary than ever before, while it is common knowledge among firefighters that the majority of, for example, California federal firefighters could earn higher hourly wages working as fast-food employees.

Redding Hotshots Trail Mountain Fire
The Redding Hotshots conduct a safety briefing before beginning their assignment on the Trail Mountain Fire. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Morale among the workforce is low. Cynicism abounds regarding the intentions of agency leaders to be sensitive to our needs, of their competency to advocate on our behalf, and of Congress to perform their responsibilities required not only to keep the government functioning, but also to pass the legislation needed to partially counteract the federal firefighter retention crisis. These federal employees feel righteous indignation in the face of attacks on the value of their labor, and the words-not-action stance of their leaders.

To make a distressing situation darkly comedic, a recent “system error” saw federal firefighters across the country receive notices through their government personnel system that they were to receive pay raises of nearly 100 percent. Had the agencies somehow decided to work around Congress and come through with the necessary pay increases just in the nick of time, before the temporary bonuses ran out? An agency email a few days later clarified that they had not, and a bureaucratic apology followed the inexplicable “system error.” The ironic timing of this mistake was not lost on federal firefighters.

Whether or not these public servants will endure another record-breaking furlough in the face of record-breaking wildfires, or whether their permanent pay increase will be lost within the machinations of a Congressional “system error,” remains to be seen.

Opinion: Maui fire shows that Hawaii paradise was a dream

Naka Nathaniel is an opinion columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat.

Naka Nathaniel

In Hawai’i this summer, we would glance at the news from the rest of the country and be grateful that we weren’t suffering under the extreme weather — heat domes, deluges or smoke-filled skies — that other parts of the world were experiencing. We remained sheltered in our corner of paradise.

But “paradise” was a marketing ploy, never the truth nor a guarantee.

Today, Hawai’i is reeling and in shock. The rising death toll — currently standing at 55 — from wildfires that are raging across Maui, is simply soul-crushing. 

This opinion piece on CNN by Naka Nathaniel is well worth reading.

Are we ignoring the smokejumpers?

Recent facebook post by Murry, re-posted with permission and slightly edited; he spent 26 years as a smokejumper followed by 22 seasons on a Cal Fire lookout, and he theorizes that much of the public land in the West has burned because we’re under-utilizing smokejumpers.

Guest post by MURRY TAYLOR

Since 2020 smokejumpers have averaged only 4.5 fire jumps each season. That’s a terrible under-utilization of an important firefighting resource. In the past we easily jumped twice that many, and some years four times as many. I’ve seen it many times while on the Duzel Rock lookout southeast of Happy Camp, California — fires were not staffed for a day or two and then went big and cost tens or even hundreds of millions while the jumpers sat unused.

There seems to be a lack of understanding among fire managers in the Forest Service about the capability of these jumpers. Dispatchers have said they didn’t put jumpers on a fire because the “trees were too tall,” or the “winds were too strong.” Clearly they didn’t understand that jumpers carry 150-foot let-down ropes, and they have a spotter in the plane throwing streamers, so they know EXACTLY what the wind is like over the fire.

The good news is that things seem to be changing for the better. Allowing jumpers to get back to 10-plus fire jumps per season would save big money and lots of acres. For those who think we need to get more fire back on the land, all I can say is, Don’t worry, there’s going to be plenty of that given the way fires burn now. The policy of putting ALL these early season fires out while small would be a big help. That way, when August — the toughest part of fire season — arrives, the handcrews wouldn’t be exhausted and scattered all over hell, and the skies wouldn’t be filled with smoke so that Air Ops are critically limited.

Jumpers and hotshots tell me that Yes, sometimes the fuels and new fire weather are factors in making fires harder to catch. But MOSTLY, they say, there’s always something that can be done to catch these fires if they are hit while small.

The Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon has taken a more aggressive approach to putting fires out when small. In the last three seasons they’ve had 192 fires and burned only 50 acres. This was achieved by pre-positioning jumpers during lightning storms, better utilization of rappellers, and contract fire resources.

I wrote a post on this topic a couple years ago. Over and over, while on the Duzel Rock lookout, I’ve heard that certain fires weren’t attacked early because the country was “too steep and too rough.”

Staging Area … July 4, 2023

Today we are continuing an occasional off-topic feature that Bill Gabbert deployed a couple years ago — had been meaning to revive this and JK reminded me. This post can serve as the beginning of an open thread in which readers can talk about issues that we have, or have not, yet gotten into. This is a literally off-topic thread. You have the floor.

The usual rules about commenting do apply, though. And remember, no personal attacks or politics, please. If you haven’t read the rules lately, they are posted HERE.


Alberta had one of the best wildfire programs in the world.

Trina Moyles is the author of Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest, and the Globe and Mail published this excellent opinion piece by Moyles last week, titled Alberta had one of the best wildfire programs in the world. Budget cuts have left the province at risk.

“I worked for Alberta Wildfire for seven years as a lookout observer,” she Trina Moyles' lookout bookwrites, “climbing a 100-foot tower and watching for smoke from April to September. In 2016, my first season, on my fourth day on the job, I witnessed a grassfire take off in the scorching hot, bone-dry conditions of early May. Within minutes, not one, but four giant columns of smoke exploded. The fires were caused by sparks cast from the friction of a train braking along the tracks and catching in the cured grass.”

Her detailed op-ed explains, from her perspective, what happened to a stellar fire detection and suppression system, and how Alberta now finds itself understaffed, underfunded, and underequipped. “In the world of wildfire management, experience matters,” she says. “Experience is what keeps communities safe from wildfires and firefighters safe on the fireline. Experience results in a faster, more efficient delivery of wildfire detection, assessment, and management. Experience can be achieved only in a system where people feel valued and fairly compensated, and have the opportunity to learn and grow within the organization.”

Her descriptions of Alberta fire crews sound nearly identical to descriptions of fire crews in the western U.S. — up to and including budget woes.

“A series of government cutbacks and defunding, however, has seriously damaged Alberta Wildfire’s ability to prevent and respond to wildfires,” she writes. “The NDP cut $15 million from the budget in 2016. Three years later, the United Conservative Party (UCP), despite the severity of the 2019 fire season in Alberta, with multiple northern and Indigenous communities affected by the Chuckegg Creek and McMillan wildfire complexes, subsequently deepened those cuts. In November 2019, they slashed the Rappel Attack Program (RAP), a 40-year-old program that trained firefighters to rappel from helicopters into remote areas. They also decommissioned 26 fire towers, one-fifth of the province’s lookout detection program. Then-agriculture and forestry minister, Devin Dreeshen, told the CBC, ‘We don’t want politics getting in the way of how we fight fires. We want experts in the actual field to actually say how we should actually fight fires.’ But the UCP have done anything but listen to wildfire experts.”

Read Moyles’ opinion piece in the Globe and Mail — it’s well worth a read. And don’t miss the 50+ comments. Earlier in May, she wrote ‘We are a skeleton crew out here’: UCP cuts led to disastrous Alberta wildfire situation.

A bad (and likely illegal) shooting decision, on video, ignites Arizona fire


05/04/2023 UPDATE:  Authorities have identified the shooter suspected of starting the Molino 2 Fire. The fire was started Sunday, April 30 and resulted in the closure of the Catalina Highway in the Santa Catalina Ranger District, Coronado National Forest. Video evidence shows the individual shooting illegal shotgun rounds and the start of the wildfire, according to KOLD-13 News.

Coronado National Forest managers and Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations expressed their appreciation to members of the public who provided multiple timely and actionable tips about the identity of the suspect who started the wildfire. Investigators identified, located, and interviewed the irresponsible gun owner, who is apparently shooting incendiary shells from a 12-gauge semiautomatic tactical shotgun with an extended magazine. The case has been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
 ~ K.A.


It’s Sunday, April 30, at milepost 4.5 on the Catalina Highway, in a section of the Coronado National Forest that is a recreation gateway for Tucson, Arizona. The day reaches 100 degrees for the first time of the year, and there’s a Red Flag Warning.

Most folks might think that this is not a good day to demonstrate how adept they are at shooting a shotgun at an oddly dressed torso target with what seems to be incendiary shells. Even a worse day to demonstrate this five times, on video.

Screenshot from video, showing the target and the shooter whose identity is being sought by Coronado National Forest investigators.
Screenshot from video, showing the target and the shooter whose identity is being sought by Coronado National Forest investigators.

But the correct decision wasn’t what the unnamed man in the video elected to do. His identity is being sought by Coronado National Forest investigators in connection with the Molino 2 Fire.

The forest shared the video in a media release noting that video evidence was obtained showing the suspect and the start of the Molino 2 Fire. Video footage shows an approximately 50- to 60-year-old, white male wearing a light grey shirt with tan cargo pants approaching the scene where others with a camera were shooting at a homemade target. Upon his arrival, they stepped back and allowed him to take five shots using his own shotgun. It appears in the video the suspect had it loaded with incendiary shells  causing sparks to fly and starting the Molino 2 Fire.

The release notes that using incendiary ammo and starting a wildfire are violations of 36 CFR 261.5 (b,c) punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or $5,000. These violations are considered Class B Misdemeanors. In addition to the fine, some of the cost may be recovered through restitution.

The fire was reported to be contained at 110 acres, with no cost estimate available. The Catalina Highway was closed for a portion of the first day of the fire, causing significant delays of a Sunday afternoon mountain traffic.

The video shows a man who shoots with enough care to wear ear protection. First, he looks back – to recognize the person with the camera, and then he turns and begins what appears to be a very conscious act – as the use of any weapons should be, by ethics and law.

VIDEO:  https://youtu.be/cV1hlbXff7Q

In the video embers are visible flying from where the target is hit, bouncing off surrounding rocks. The shooter fires a total of five shells until he empties his shotgun.

A still-frame from the video. Source: Coronado National Forest.

At 34 seconds into the video, the camera pans left and focuses on nearly a dozen little spot fires. Within 15 seconds the flamelengths are 2-3 feet high and the spots burn together into three distinct fires at the base of a canyon chute.

The techniques and success of fire prevention are often framed by the Three E’s – Education, Engineering and Enforcement. All three E’s are in place in this section of the Catalina Highway (which I know well, as it leads to some of my favorite hiking and running routes, and I’ve managed fires there in the past). With education having already been ignored by the shooter, and the engineering being crossed (since most of this area is closed and flagged off along the highway), then the third E of enforcement is the last tool left, with a 49-second video to support the case, as well as 110 acres of burnt desert and grassland as evidence.

Anyone with information regarding this incident and the suspected shooter is asked to call 520-388-8343 or email the Coronado National Forest at Ma******************@us**.gov

Molino 2 Fire, Coronado National Forest. April 30, 2023..