Confusion at a National Forest as requests for work boot stipends is six times what was expected

Boots can cost more than $500

Update at 11:40 a.m. PDT April 22, 2021

The Deputy Regional Forester for the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service (R6), Debbie Hollen, confirmed the boot stipend policy in an email that circulated on April 21, 2021:

I can confirm that ALL R6 employees who are eligible for a boot stipend will receive one.  This article is an example of an unfortunate misunderstanding, that we hope is limited to one National Forest.   I know we have tried to ensure understanding of the change in policy related to both the stipend, and the new budget structure across the entire RLT.   Boots are covered in FY21.

It remains to be seen if this ALL employees statement applies to all FS regions. On April 20 I asked Debra Schweizer, Acting Public Affairs Specialist in the FS Washington Office that question by email, “Will the boot stipend be available to every employee who qualifies this year?” If I receive a reply it will be posted here. Earlier she had written that the Washington Office “has been working with regions directly to ensure there are enough funds nationally available to cover all fire employees that participate in the program.”

Originally published at 1:38 p.m. PDT April 20, 2021

firefighter boots
USFS photo by Jordan Gulley, Redmond Hotshots

Some field-going personnel on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon, including those with fire duties, are being told they may have to purchase some of their own required personal protective equipment this year.

In the Forest Service, certain field-going personnel and all Forestry Technicians who fight fires are required to have boots that meet the agency’s specifications — at least 8 inches high, lace-type work boots, with lug melt-resistant soles. Prices for most models range from $340 to $560. If worn by firefighters who put a lot of miles on them, the boots have to be rebuilt, repaired, or replaced regularly.

Merv George, Forest Supervisor, Rogue River-Siskiyou NF
Merv George, Forest Supervisor, Rogue River-Siskiyou NF, USFS photo

Since 2015 the Forest Service has been giving personnel who are required to have these boots a stipend up to $300 every three years to help defray the cost. On October 1 of last year it was increased to $500. The three-year schedule was then reset for everyone, which meant they all could apply for the stipend again.

Two employees on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest told Wildfire Today that this year they were informed that not everyone who qualifies will receive a full stipend because there is not enough money available.

An explanatory email sent March 29 from the Administrative Officer on the Rogue River -Siskiyou NF laid out the new policy according to Merv George, the Forest Supervisor. Eligible employees were told to submit their stipend requests by April 19 “for final review and determination of reimbursement amount.” And…

Please note: based on the number of Forest-wide requests, the full reimbursement of $500 will not be honored if total cost exceeds our allocation; instead, Merv’s decision is to split the number of requests received by the amount allocated – this includes fire and non-fire employees, for consistency…Permanent employees remain priority and if funding remains available after covering permanent staff, we may look to support temporary employee requests.  Requests shall be submitted for employees who truly need/needed replacement boots and only employees with a position description identifying boots as a requirement will be considered.

The boot policy obtained from the USFS website seems fairly clear:

USFS Boot Stipend policy
USFS Boot Stipend policy. From USFS website April 17, 2021.

On April 19 I asked Forest Supervisor Merv George if everyone on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF who is required to have boots that meet the agency’s specifications will receive the $500 stipend. He replied by email that afternoon:

The answer to your question all depends on how many employees submit a reimbursement request.  I have sat aside $10k for this purpose as of now. Unfortunately the forest does not receive any extra funding for these reimbursements. Instead it is expected that they will be absorbed by our existing salary and expense line item.

If more than 20 people submit reimbursement requests that will use up the $10k I will try and find more money….meaning hiring less [temporary employees] for this season. Or we can divide up the $10k by the number and give everyone an equal share. No decisions have been made because we are still waiting to see how many folks are requesting it this year.

Sorry if it sounds complicated but until the authors of the boot policy can find a way to help the field pay for them….units are navigating this dynamic tension.

Bottom line…the leadership team and I will do our best to make the $500 reimbursement happen for all our staff who request it.

Later that afternoon I heard from Mr. George again, saying:

I just learned that I have 130 boot reimbursement requests as of now. This puts me well over the $10k I had budgeted for. I just spoke with our new R6 Fire Director about this issue too. Looks like we may see some economic help from the region on this. As I mentioned before, I will do everything I can to honor this policy.

I reached out to the Forest Service Washington Office and explained the situation in Oregon.

Debra Schweizer, Acting Public Affairs Specialist responded by email:

The Washington Office, Fire and Aviation Management, has been working with regions directly to ensure there are enough funds nationally available to cover all fire employees that participate in the program.

One of the Forestry Technicians that reached out to us last week had strong feelings. They wanted their name withheld.

These types of leaders treat the budget like it’s taking food off their own dinner plate and it’s disheartening. I’m also really irritated at the Forest and the Agency for specifically targeting the boot stipend as a way to screw people. EVERY OTHER PROFESSION I’ve seen has provided employees PPE, so why would the Agency ask people to buy these extremely expensive boots out of pocket on the ‘chance’ that they get reimbursed? Can you imagine the outcry if the public heard that the Seattle Fire Department expected their employees to buy their own bunker gear or SCBAs?

My first pair of Whites

My last pair of Whites boots
My last pair of Whites

The photo above is my last pair of Whites boots.

Here is the story of my first pair.

Back in the old days, before 2015, Forestry Technicians had to pay for their own boots. During my second year with the Forest Service, my initial year on the El Cariso Hot Shots, our first large fire that year in 1970 was the Safety Harbor Fire at Lake Chelan, Washington. After flying from Southern California in a Forest Service DC-3 we were hauled on a bus to a boat launch on the west side of the lake. From there we got on a sightseeing boat usually used for tourists, which took us across to the other side, where we were the initial attack on the fire. (Yeah, I KNOW. From Southern California, we were the first Forestry Technicians on the fire. Needless to say, there were a bunch of fires burning in the area and the locals were a little busy.)

Safety Harbor Fire boat ride El Cariso Hot Shots
El Cariso Hotshots and other firefighters on a boat being ferried across Lake Chelan to the Safety Harbor Fire in 1970. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After two or three weeks we had a day of R&R. Some of us, including myself who had found that our boots were inadequate for Hotshot work, were taken to a shoe store in a nearby town. It was early in the season and most of us had very little money, and no credit cards. Our crew Superintendent, Ron Campbell, worked with the Finance Section to arrange for a Commissary-like process for us to buy new boots and for the funds to come out of our pay.

We all proudly walked out of the store wearing new, shiny Whites — which at the time was the preeminent footwear for firefighters and loggers. I think I paid $65 for mine, a week’s pay.

Later I heard that when the paperwork was being processed, one of the clerks in the office wondered why firefighters were buying white boots. “Won’t they just get dirty?” she said.

El Cariso Hotshots Safety Harbor Fire
El Cariso Hotshots at a spike camp on the Safety Harbor Fire in Washington, 1970. We had just been chased out of a canyon after the fire blew up, like it did every afternoon around 2 p.m.  In the foreground is the tub for heating “Continental Cuisine”  frozen hairnet-bag meals. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Whites to replace boots worn by burned firefighter

The company is saying they will not ask the firefighter to pay for the replacement pair

White’s Boots Company is saying they will replace at no charge the boots worn by the firefighter who fell into an ash pit in Arizona March 16 and suffered 2nd & 3rd degree burns over 20 percent of his body. He said the boots protected his lower leg, ankle, and foot, but he had severe burns above the boots. Another firefighter was burned at the same time but he was treated and released.

The next day a third firefighter was injured on the same fire. He suffered minor burns and was also treated at the hospital and released.

We asked Brandon Upchurch, a House Account Consultant for White’s, if most leather boots would provide the same protection, and he said, “Not necessarily. Other boots could use thinner leather, or have weak points due to construction.”