CAL FIRE introduces firefighting hand crews staffed by civilians

New CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews
New CAL FIRE Firefighter I hand crews. CAL FIRE photo.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, has introduced two hand crews staffed by civilians, rather than inmates. Based in the San Bernardino Unit, their primary mission will be fuels reduction and fighting wildfires in San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono Counties.

Each Type 2 Initial Attack crew is staffed by 2 Fire Captains and 12 Firefighter I’s. The 4 Captains selected to lead the crews bring 107 years of wildland firefighting experience, with over 60 of those years spent on hand crews. Most of the firefighters have Type 3 engine time and about half bring hand crew experience.

This is a significant step for a state that has been relying on inmate hand crews for over half a century.

With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the CAL FIRE is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.

COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. On July 9 California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.

The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.

New CAL FIRE Firefighter 1 hand crews
New CAL FIRE Firefighter I hand crews. CAL FIRE photo.

Federal firefighter asks for six specific reforms

Firefighters holding Romero SaddleThomas Fire
Firefighters holding Romero Saddle on the Thomas Fire in southern California, December 13, 2017. Photo: Kari Greer for the USFS.

A federal firefighter has drafted a letter to U.S. Senators and Representatives in which they ask for six specific reforms. However, the person, who feels the need to remain anonymous, insists that they not be called firefighter, since the job description applies the label “forestry technician.”

Here is the letter. At the bottom is a link to sign a petition at Change.org.


To our US Senators and Representatives:

I am a Wildland firefighter with 14 years of experience fighting wildfires across the United States and Alaska with the US Forest Service. I’m writing this letter to open your eyes and to start a dialogue about the mental health crisis that is taking place amongst our firefighting ranks in the US Forest Service.

Wildland firefighters have a 0.3% suicide rate according to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management. This figure is shockingly high compared to the national suicide rate of 0.01%. In 2015 and 2016 a total of 52 Wildland Firefighters took their own lives. Why do wildland firefighters suffer from a 30x rate of suicides compared to the general US population? I detail my personal thoughts that are based on hundreds of conversations with wildland firefighters and my own experience below.

Any US Government official should find it unacceptable to have such high suicide and mental health issues amongst their employees. Unfortunately, little action has been taken by leadership in government to support wildland firefighters, resulting in this predictable and avoidable epidemic.

Wildland firefighters are some of the most driven, motivated and selfless workers. We miss our kids birthdays, friends’ barbecues, aren’t around to help put the kids to bed or make dinner, and this takes a toll on us. This causes us to lose social connections and friendships, to feel distant from our loved ones, and increases our divorce rates because we aren’t present to support our partners.

Throughout my time as a Hotshot and a Smokejumper I have seen people working through multiple injuries such as hiking chainsaws up the hill with a torn ACL, unable to have surgery due to a lack of health insurance, or a financial inability to miss a few fire assignments. The majority of wildland firefighters rely too heavily on overtime and hazard pay making time off financially unfeasible. When an on-the-job injury occurs, our workmans comp insurance is slow to approve claims, often does not authorize payment for doctor recommended care, and then only pays 40% of base pay to recover while away from work. This needs to change.

We often hear from local citizenry, news stations, a governor or senator that we are “Heroes.” I’ve had innumerable conversations with fellow firefighters how disingenuous this feels when many wildland firefighters are temporary employees who do not receive benefits and have an employer that refuses to call them what everybody knows to be true, that we are “WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS,” not forestry technicians.

Our wages lag far behind standard Firefighter wages. We do not receive pay for our increasing workload within an increasingly longer fire season. It is common for us to be running a Division of a fire (typically a job for a GS-11)  while paid as a GS-6, have dozens of resources (personnel and equipment) under our command and be the lowest paid of all of them.

The job is so hazardous and physically difficult that we are supposed to receive the same retirement that the FBI, Law Enforcement, and other Federal Firefighters receive, able to retire after 20-25 years. The difference is that their career starts when they are hired, while our retirement plan doesn’t start until we are hired as a permanent employee, often coming after more than a decade of service as a temporary employee. Hotshot crews are typically staffed with 7 permanent employees and 13 temporary employees, doing some of the most hazardous and strenuous work.

Our overtime is not considered mandatory and therefore not part of our retirement annuity calculation, while other federal employees’ overtime is considered mandatory. This is a laughable premise amongst any wildland firefighter as we often have no say in length of work and are not able to go home after 8 hours of work when we are in the middle of an assignment. We typically work 14-day assignments, sleep on the ground, eat MREs and don’t complain. We are often out of contact with loved ones and thousands of miles from home, but have to fight with office workers tracking our pay to get paid for 16-hour workdays where we work from 6AM until 10PM. Other contracting resources, CAL FIRE, municipal firefighters, and other Federal Firefighters all are paid Portal-to-Portal, 24 -hour days, without the federal government blinking an eye.

As a 14-Year Veteran, I am qualified at the Crew Boss Level with many other advanced qualifications, but I have only accrued a total of 3 years towards retirement and make under $20/hour in an area where the median home price is over $400,000. When I go on an assignment, the babysitter makes more per hour than I do on a fire.

The current wage structure also limits diversity and keeps women and minorities out of firefighting positions. If women have plans to have children, then it is nearly impossible to pursue a career in firefighting because the option to miss a single fire assignment would result in a large percentage of yearly income being lost. People from lower-income demographics are kept out of this field due to the low wages as well. Increasingly I am seeing only privileged, white males able to work in this career with the most stable and supportive family situations. This is a shame as we all suffer when diversity is discouraged.

Why are we hailed as “Heroes” by the media and politicians but paid like second-rate cannon fodder that can be replaced easily?

I’m asking for real reforms from our elected officials:

  1. A psychologist with an office located in the forest headquarters of each national forest who is available to all Forest Service employees for mental health.
  2. A Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) paid leave category is created with 1.5 hours per pay period (roughly 1.25 weeks per year) to take time for mental health.
  3. Cut the crap, We are WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS, not forestry technicians. Compel Land Management agencies to convert all wildland firefighters from GS pay scale to a new pay scale such as WLF. A WLF-6 (currently GS-6) should be paid at $30/hour or $60,000 per year. It took me until my 9th year of fighting wildfires to attain the level of GS-6, so this is not a starting wage.
  4. Eliminate any hiring of GS-3 in Wildland Fire. This wage is insultingly low and not acceptable for the type of risk taken.
  5. After we are called firefighters in our official Position Description, end Hazard Pay. Our jobs are inherently hazardous, and our lives should not be valued based on our pay rate as is the current practice.
  6. Eliminate Temporary Positions for any firefighter returning for their second year. If they are worth bringing back for a second season then they are worth paying benefits and allowing to contribute to their retirement plan.

This is a simple list of requests that can be done now. This job is already so stressful as evidenced and explained above. Firefighters and their families need some relief from the biggest stress currently, which is financial stress. Increasing wages will save firefighter lives, I have no doubt. It will also preserve a middle class job from sinking into the poverty level.

My final request goes out to the countless US citizens who have relied on us to save their communities, homes, favorite forested areas and to the media organizations that have used us to write compelling stories and report on some incredibly dramatic events:

Please stop referring to us as wildland firefighters. We are currently “forestry technicians” as described by the federal government position description and your reporting should reflect that reality. Don’t call us “Heroes” either because when divorces, mental health problems and declining wages are the reality, we don’t feel like heroes at all.

Thank you for your time and understanding.


(The author has also posted this on Change. org. Sign the petition there if you are so inclined.)

Time-lapse video of the Apple Fire

Apple Fire convection column pyrocumulus
Screenshot from the time-lapse video of the convection column on the Apple Fire, shot by Leroy Leggitt.

This video compresses 20 minutes of high intensity wildfire behavior on the Apple Fire into 20 seconds. It was recorded at 4:18 p.m. PDT August 1, 2020 by V. Leroy Leggitt. You can see several areas of condensation at the top of the smoke column as it becomes a pyrocumulus cloud.

The Apple Fire started July 31, 2020 near Cherry Valley, California and is spreading north of Beaumont and Banning. As of August 3, 2020 it has burned over 26,000 acres.

If you are having trouble watching the video, you can see it on YouTube.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Apple Fire, including the most recent, click here.)

Wildfire potential to increase in the Northwest in August and September

Wildfire potential is expected to be above normal this Fall in the Southeast

wildfire potential August

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued August 1 by the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center for August through November predicts that the northwestern states will have above normal potential through September. In October and November that distinction shifts to California and the southeast.

The data from NIFC shown here represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

Below:

  • An excerpt from the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
  • More of NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
  • NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts;
  • Drought Monitor;
  • Keetch-Byram Drought Index.

“August represents the peak of fire season for the West and Above Normal significant fire potential is expected across much of the Great Basin, northern California, Pacific Northwest, and northern Rockies. The North American Monsoon is forecast to remain intermittent, which will provide chances of lightning without moisture surges extending into portions of the Great Basin, California, Pacific Northwest, and northern Rockies. Given the dry fuels, any lightning will likely result in increased fire activity and above normal significant large fire potential into September.

“As precipitation and cooler temperatures arrive in fall, areas of concern will shift southward to portions of California as offshore wind events become more likely. Without a robust monsoon and potentially delayed fall precipitation, fuels will remain very dry across much of California. With ENSO-neutral to potentially La Niña conditions, an increase of frequency of offshore wind events are possible. Additionally, drier than normal conditions are likely across much of the Southern Area given current long-term weather and climatological trends. However, an active hurricane season is a source of uncertainty.”


wildfire potential September

wildfire potential October
(We confirmed that the October graphic above was issued August 1, 2020 not  July 1, 2020 as indicated. It is a typo.)

wildfire potential November

Outlook temperature precipitation
Outlook for temperature and precipitation in September, October, and November. Prepared July 16, 2020. NOAA.
Drought Monitor July 28, 2020
Drought Monitor July 28, 2020

 

Wildfire smoke forecast for August 3, 2020

August 2, 2020 | 4:38 p.m. PDT

Wildfire smoke forecast August 3, 2020
Near-surface wildfire smoke forecast for 4 a.m. PDT August 3, 2020. NOAA HRRR-Smoke.

Smoke from southern California’s 20,000-acre Apple Fire is predicted to move north overnight Sunday. Monday morning it is expected to affect areas in areas of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho.

The map above created by NOAA is for near-surface smoke which can affect humans more than vertically integrated smoke higher in the atmosphere.

NOAA predicts that a new fire in north-central Oregon, the Fir Mountain Road Fire seven miles south-southeast of Hood River, will produce smoke that will move into eastern Oregon, southeast Washington, and eastern Idaho. The fire started Saturday night, and Sunday morning was estimated at 70 acres. It seems surprising that it could be generating such a large quantity of smoke, however it is burning in slash piles from recent logging, as well as adjacent standing timber.

Fir Mountain Road Fire
Fir Mountain Road Fire. Oregon Department of Forestry photo August 2, 2020.

Two pilots killed in mid-air collision while battling wildfire in Nevada

UPDATED at 10:15 p.m. MDT July 30, 2020

Bishop Fire
Bishop Fire, from Ella Mountain Lookout July 29, 2020. InciWeb photo.

(This article was first published at FireAviation.com)

Two air tankers collided July 30 while working on the Bishop Fire in southeast Nevada.

The Air Tractor Single Engine Air Tankers, SEATs, were involved in a mid-air collision Thursday afternoon according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Claire Morville. There was one person on board each aircraft.

At 10 p.m. MDT July 30 a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, Chris Hanefeld, confirmed that the collision occurred earlier in the day at about 12:55 p.m. He said both pilots were killed in the crash. Recovery operations are currently underway and initial notifications are still being made.

“We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the two pilots and to all those working with the BLM Nevada Ely District,” said BLM Nevada State Director Jon Raby.

map Bishop Fire
Map showing heat detected by satellites on the Bishop fire as late as 3 a.m. MDT July 30, 2020.

The Bishop fire, reported July 29, has burned 500 acres 14 miles south-southwest of Caliente, Nevada.

The accident occurred near the intersection of Kane Springs Road and Riggs Road, Ms. Morville said.

The fire is on land managed by the BLM. The two privately owned aircraft were under contract to the agency.

SEATs are small airplanes used to support wildland firefighters on the ground. They can deliver up to 800 gallons of fire retardant and operate in areas where larger airtankers cannot.

The names of the pilots have not been released.

Our sincere condolences go out to the pilots’ family, friends, and coworkers.

map Bishop Fire
Bishop Fire map. Data from 7:53 p.m. MDT July 29, 2020. BLM.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.