Wildland firefighters and mental health

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters issues a statement during Mental Health Awareness Month

Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire
Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire in CO, Aug. 22, 2020. USFS photo.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a new, very active, and increasingly relevant organization has released a statement about mental health:


Mental Health Awareness Month – Time to Shed Light on Federal Wildland Firefighters Most Urgent Challenge

Greater than the acres of treasured forest lands lost, more valuable than any one residential home or business, more challenging than the most complex of wildfire incidents is the challenge of addressing the mental health crisis currently facing the firefighting community. In the Fall of 2019, six current and former federal wildland firefighters came together to discuss and identify what they believed to be major issues plaguing wildland firefighters. Determined to create lasting reforms, they developed solutions critical to protecting and advancing the health and wellness of the men and women who dedicate their lives to such a critical public service.

Mental Health and Wellness is truly at the core of what drives the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF) mission, and they remain steadfast to serve, protect, and support our sisters and brothers; our family.

We’re all here today because we’ve experienced loss in one form or another. We have lost friends in the line of duty. We have lost friends to suicide. We have lost friends to cancer after a lifetime of firefighting. We have buried our friends and colleagues. We have had close calls on the line that shake us to our core. We have responded to medical incidents that involve one of our own. We re-live and revisit these traumatic events never to be forgotten no matter how hard we try to put them aside. We struggle to reconnect with our partners, our children, and our loved ones after being absent from their lives for months on end; missing birthdays, anniversaries and knowing cherished moments are lost. We have struggled with our own demons. We have felt alone.

The Grassroot Wildland Firefighters are here today because of our shared experiences and the invisible bonds we develop. You are not alone. We are listening, and we hear you.

The members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters have had the honor and privilege to work in a multitude of positions within the wildland fire community. These experiences have provided our lives purpose, a sense of duty, and incredible opportunity. But it is the extraordinary people with whom we’ve shared these experiences and the lifelong connections we created that have had the largest and most lasting impacts on our lives. They are our brothers and our sisters; they are our family. But deep connections often come at a high cost. And so, when our fire family members are struggling or taken from us too soon, the impact and loss can be immense and often crippling.

The increase in public demand and expectations placed on Wildland Firefighters to respond to ever larger and more intense wildfires is far from abating, and, as a matter of fact, is expected to exponentially increase in the coming years. Our federal Wildland Firefighter workforce is currently experiencing a major decline in frontline fire experience, advanced leadership qualifications, and severe staffing shortages not seen in recent memory.

Coming out of a pandemic during one of the worst fire seasons in history puts us in a position of incredible stress and strain on our personal mental health and wellness. The physical fire environment is outpacing our ability to think and act creatively.  For our federal wildland fire workforce, we are outmatched and outpaced with the social and political demands that are expected of us. This places an untenable burden on the federal wildland firefighting response community. The GRWFF recognizes this burden impacts not only us, but the partners and families we leave behind.

We are reaching out to our fire family during Mental Health Awareness Month to reaffirm our commitment to the wildland fire community.  As we progress as an organization, so too does our commitment to the comprehensive Health and Wellbeing of our federal fire workforce.

As the GRWFF Comprehensive Health and Wellbeing subcommittee gathers data and research on the topic of mental health, we also continue to develop our resources page on the GRWFF website.  We are working with several other non-governmental organizations to provide data, research, stories, and resources to help raise awareness and propose much needed reforms.

We recognize these problems are complex, but we are committed to identifying the true source of these issues and developing and implementing real solutions through legislative efforts to further support our fire family.  We are all in this together.

Wildland firefighter speaks truth to Congressional power

“I have grown impatient with inaction”

Riva Duncan testifies fire Congressional hearing
Riva Duncan testifies remotely during Congressional hearing, April 29, 2021. Still image from live video.

In the oversight hearing today before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter spoke truth to power.

Riva Duncan, who recently retired from the Fire Staff Officer position on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, testified remotely about job classification, pay disparity, employee health and wellbeing, recruitment, size of the workforce, and fire seasons transforming into fire years.

You can watch a recording of the hearing at the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters website, or at the end of this article.

I have watched many Congressional hearings about wildland fire and the agencies that manage them, and this is the first time I can remember that a firefighter who had worked their way up from an entry level position and had not been tainted by serving time in the Washington Office, testified about firefighting conditions. In 2016 Kelly Martin, then Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, testified about sexual harassment, but she was not asked questions about pay, hiring, and retention.

Ms. Duncan, now the Executive Secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, submitted 13-pages of testimony, but the last portion of her five-minute opening oral remarks had a memorable impact on the politicians. Toward the end she choked up a little — you can probably guess which section provoked that response.

“I am not here to disparage the US Forest Service,” she said, bringing her formal remarks to a close. “These issues are larger than any one agency and will take complex, and expensive, solutions. It truly was my honor to serve the US Forest Service and the American people. I loved working in fire, but I love the people I worked with even more. I have grown weary of losing amazing friends and colleagues, and I have grown impatient with inaction. The US is burning, wildland firefighters are struggling, and some are even dying. The time for reform is now.  Thank you.”

Not only were her words powerful, but her delivery got the attention of the politicians — a category of humans not generally known for their compassion and empathy. During the rest of the hearing many of the Representatives used a little of their allotted time to tell her how much they appreciated her participation.

“I want to thank you for your testimony and your service, said Rep. Joe Neguse (CO), Chair of the Subcommittee. “It’s incredibly powerful and certainly resonated with me and every member of our committee on both sides of the aisle.”

In her written testimony Ms. Duncan said, “Our inability to hire and retain wildland firefighters has become readily apparent with record setting fire management vacancy rates through the federal service. Hiring managers are finding themselves unable to fill empty positions, and lacking compensation is a primary contributing factor.”

The hearing was titled, Wildfire in a Warming World: Opportunities to Improve Community Collaboration, Climate Resilience, and Workforce Capacity.

Chairperson Neguse began the hearing by proposing a new “Climate Corps to address immediate restoration needs and create rural jobs… a pipeline for careers in land management and conservation.”

“We need more well paid, permanent opportunities to grow the federal land management workforce,” the Chairperson continued. “As the budget has shifted toward wildfire suppression, there has been a corresponding reduction in non-fire personnel costing us land managers, biologists, other scientists with the expertise for planning for fire to improve the resiliency of the landscape in the first place… While the fire funding fix ended the practice of fire borrowing it did virtually nothing to improve the health care, pay, or general well being of those on the front line of these climate-driven disasters — our Federal wildland firefighters.”

Rashida Tlaib (MI) asked about pay and transitioning to a full time workforce.

Ms. Duncan replied in part, “We can’t fix anything around the fire workforce without adequate pay, a decent living wage.” Later she talked about how funding has been cut across the Forest Service, not just in fire.

Rep. Tlaib said, “I truly believe it is unacceptable that we are asking Federal wildland firefighters to protect the vast territories for just pennies on the dollar and I’m hoping that we can take action in this committee to raise pay and benefits to support our firefighters as the professionals that they are.”

One Representative has a wildland fire background

“I know wildland firefighting well, said Rep. Teresa Fernandez (NM). “I was the first young woman hired to assist the State of New Mexico Forest Service during fire season. All five of my brothers fought forest fires. As noted earlier there is no such thing as fire season anymore.”

When Rep. Fernandez asked what Congress can do to help, Ms. Duncan did not pull any punches and laid the responsibility where it rightly lies– with the people she was testifying to and their colleagues:

“We really need legislators like you all and the administration to take the lead to pass real meaningful reform to make these agencies work with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget to work very directly and quickly to move forward with a new [job] series and then tie additional pay to that,” Ms Ducan said. “I think most people would be shocked to know an entry level wildland firefighter makes less than $14 an hour. That’s embarrassing and it’s amazing what these people, who risk their lives, make for a living. It’s a travesty.”

Why would anyone want to be a Federal wildland firefighter?

Rep. Katie Porter (CA) asked Ms. Duncan: “Why would anyone want to be a Federal firefighter and get paid $13.45, below what we have been pressing for as the minimum wage for jobs that don’t require the kind of training and risk to your person? Why would anyone become a federal firefighter instead of a state firefighter where the pay is nearly double?”

“That’s the million-dollar question and we’re struggling to hire people now into those entry level positions”, Ms. Duncan replied. “We’re struggling to staff our engines and our crews because of that. For some of them it’s a summer job, to put themselves through college. They’ve grown up in a community where there is a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office, so it’s an easy jump for them to get into that. But they get bit by the fire bug, they love the career, and then find themselves making it difficult to meet financial goals.”

“Let’s get the classification going”

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, chair of the full Natural Resources Committee said to Ms. Duncan, “We [have been] working on legislation in a couple of Congresses now on reclassifying our Forestry Technicians into Wildland Firefighters… Let’s get some more folks on board and get it through this time. Let’s get the classification going and then we can start remedying the pay schedule as well, too. So I think, one step at a time around here.”

After talking about efficiencies in the federal agencies, he told Ms. Duncan, “Please contact our office with ideas. We’re just trying to find ways to move more effectively within the law or change the law where needed. Because we want to be streamlined in what needs to be done.

Other topics

Of course it was not all about firefighters. Courtney Schultz, an Associate Professor for Forest and Natural Resource Policy told the committee, “In addition to supporting agency research, Congress should consider  restoring full funding for the Joint Fire Science Program, the biggest and most effective program that addresses agencies’ priorities for fire research.”

Later Ms. Schultz said capacity is the greatest barrier to making progress in fuel management.

Several of the Representatives mentioned reducing or eliminating regulations to make conducting projects easier.

Should local government or industry manage National Forests?

Rep. Tom Tiffany (WI) said we have too much preservation: “I think we have a fundamental question here between management and preservation and the west has suffered under preservation for about the last three decades.”

He asked one of the other panelists, California rancher Dave Daley, about local management of National Forests — “Would local government or industry be more successful in managing these wildfire risks and just managing the resources generally?”

Mr. Daley talked about the Good Neighbor Authority which allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with state agencies to do forest management work on National Forests, saying it has been used in California.

Rep. Tom McClintock (CA) used all of his allotted time to talk about the benefits of logging. He did not ask any questions.

Rep. Blake Moore (UT) emphasized the importance of post-fire management.


The video of the hearing below should be cued up to begin about 10 seconds before Ms. Duncan’s opening remarks. If it does not start there, you can skip to 36:00.

Senators ask GAO to assess hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters

Nine Senators signed letter asking how to strengthen the federal firefighting workforce

Briefing on Springs Fire
Firefighters gather for a briefing on the Springs Fire on the Boise National Forest near Banks, Idaho, August 12, 2020. Kari Greer photo for U.S. Forest Service.

Nine U.S. Senators signed a letter requesting that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct an assessment of hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters at the five federal agencies responsible for wildland fire. Those agencies are:

  • Forest Service
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service

The Senators, almost 10 percent of all Senators, asked that the GAO make recommendations for how these agencies can improve wildfire prevention and suppression efforts by strengthening the federal firefighting workforce.

Excerpts from the letter:

Wildfires in the West are now a near-constant threat and we can no longer afford to rely on just a seasonal firefighting workforce. Transitioning to a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions depending on wildfire activity, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process.

[…]

Assess whether OPM should create a new, separate job series and pay scale for federal wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with state firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters had some input into this effort. This is a rapidly growing organization that is becoming a factor in implementing changes that could benefit Forestry and Range Technicians whose primary job is fighting wildland fires.

This is the organization’s mission:

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighter Committee is dedicated to promoting and advocating for Federal Wildland Fire personnel titled Forestry Technicians and Range Technicians. Our mission is to advocate for proper classification, pay, benefits and comprehensive well being. Our mission is to educate the public, generate support and provide solutions to our federal representatives through policy reform.

The three-page letter written by the Senators is below. To scroll to the additional pages, click on or hover your mouse over the document then click on the down arrow at bottom-left.

Letter to GAO - Federal Firefighting Workforce

Wildland firefighter organization seeks better pay and benefits

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters hopes to influence federal legislation

Britania Mountain Fire Wyoming
Firefighters conduct a firing operation to remove the fuel along Palmer Canyon Road on the Britania Mountain Fire in Wyoming. Uploaded to InciWeb September 2, 2018.

Wildland firefighters have formed a non-profit 501(c)(4) organization to advocate for better pay, benefits, a National Fire Service, and their own job series within the federal government.

The IRS rules for a 501(c)(4) allow a “social welfare” non-profit group to spend their donated funds to lobby government in order to affect legislation, but they are not allowed to participate in political campaigns on behalf of a candidate for public office.

The name of the all-volunteer group is Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF). It was formed in 2019 by active and retired federal wildland firefighters (Forestry Technicians) and continued to grow after a series of articles were published beginning in August, 2020 that called attention to their plight on Wildfire Today, Vice News, and NBC.

Below are excerpts from a news release by the GRWFF.

Kelly Martin, the group’s President and former Fire and Aviation Chief for Yosemite National Park, describes the major issue at hand: “We are at a turning point in the climate change battle, and the demands on federal wildland firefighters at the frontline have become a year-round request. Firefighters are resigning their federal positions for jobs in state, municipal and private industry that provide pay and benefits commensurate with the risks”.

Grassroots Wildland FirefightersIn many places where the government asks firefighters to serve, both in cities and remote duty stations, pay falls woefully short of basic housing and cost of living requirements.

Government studies from the National Library of Medicine reveal that federal firefighters face a multitude of health risks, with an up to 30% increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a risk of lung cancer exceeding that of the general population by as much as 43%. The ever-increasing duration and intensity of fire seasons have also led to devastating mental health statistics, which show a 30 times higher suicide rate among firefighters in comparison to the general public.

GRWFF spokesperson Riva Duncan sums it up, “In short, the pay and benefits are not commensurate with the risk, and the risk has increased fire season after fire season. The 2021 fire season is here, and nothing has changed. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters aims to do what the boots on the ground have always done in the absence of a solution, we offer one. With the input of firefighters across the country, we’ve developed a legislative proposal that aims to stem the tide of federal firefighters leaving our ranks and to create pay and benefits parity with state, municipal and private firefighting organizations. We’re working with members of congress who prioritize environmental and first responder issues to fine-tune the language, and we hope to have a sponsor and introduction soon.”