House committee hears testimony about wildland firefighting workforce reforms

Considered two bills, Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and, Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Representatives from the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Much of the two and a half hours of Wednesday’s hearing before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources about wildland firefighter pay, devolved into rants about vaccine mandates and forest management. However, quality time was still spent on enhancing the pay and benefits of firefighters and generally improving the working conditions and management of the fire suppression work force. The entire hearing can be viewed on YouTube.

The two bills being considered were H.R. 4274 Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, and H.R. 5631 Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. Brief descriptions of the two bills are in the article we published October 26.

Two representatives from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters gave five-minute presentations in addition to their more detailed written testimony. Kelly Martin, President, was on scene in the hearing room, while Vice President Lucas Tanner Mayfield appeared virtually. They both presented their cases for passing the legislation to improve recruitment and retention of the work force and making changes that would allow firefighters to earn a living wage.

Two employees from the Administration also testified, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire. They were both asked, how many firefighters do you have? The answers were “a little over 10,000” in the FS and 5,300 in the DOI. In addition, a representative of the logging community was present, Matt Dias, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.

In response to a question about the breakdown of permanent and seasonal firefighters, Ms. Hall-Rivera said presently in the FS it is about 60 percent permanent and 40 percent seasonal, and the goal is to make it 80 percent permanent and 20 percent seasonal. She said the FS needs more firefighters, including those who are specialists in technology and analysis.

Ms. Hall-Rivera also mentioned a concept that was new to me until we published an article on October 20 by Tim Swedberg who suggested hotshot crews grow from the present 20-person crews to 30, so that when 20 were deployed, 10 would remain at the base and go to their homes each night.

“We need to have larger crew sizes,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said, “so that people can take time off so they can rest and have a work/life balance. That’s going to mean we are going to need more firefighters.”

Rep. Katie Porter of California said,”As fires get bigger and more unpredictable at some point we’re just going to need more people. That’s just a fact.” She asked, “How many additional firefighters are we talking about, 100, or doubling the force from 10,000 to 20,000?”

Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have a number but she would get back to the committee with details.

Mr. Rupert from the DOI, when asked the same question, said, “We are in the middle of an assessment to really try to put good, solid numbers behind the optimal need.”

The written testimony from the Forest Service said three times that specific provisions in the proposed legislation would cause problems. For example,  increasing pay “will drastically reduce the number of firefighting personnel employed by the Forest Service.” And, establishing a Wildland Firefighter health database, a Wildland Firefighter mental health program, mental health leave, and a Wildland Firefighter presumption of illness policy, “will reduce the funding available for wildland fire suppression operations.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Committee Chair Rep. Joe Neguse asked if the temporary pay raise and awards for lower level firefighters this year helped with retention and recruitment.

“The incentives we put in place this year, they were a morale boost,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I know our firefighters appreciated them. It’s probably a little bit too soon to tell if they are having an impact on our firefighting work force this year, but these kinds of incentives and these kinds of reforms will have a positive impact, I believe.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
Republicans make a statement at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, which was about wildland firefighting workforce reforms.

Democrats on the committee primarily spoke about and asked questions regarding the issues in the two pieces of legislation that were the topic of the hearing. Some of the Republicans also briefly mentioned those issues, but spent most of their time discussing vaccine mandates, forest management, and how they felt that wilderness areas and environmental laws restricted certain management activities. They emphasized their diversion tactic by sitting in front of five large posters that seemed to conflate firefighter safety with forest management or logging. Forest management can mean different things to different constituencies. It may be prescribed fire, thinning, and removing vegetation near communities, or, logging.

Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas asked about fuel treatments; “Can we make a difference with axes and shovels and rakes or is it going to have to be a large-scale mechanized planned-out approach?”

“[It] is the only way we’re going to get ahead of this and create safer communities and safer places for our firefighters to fight fires,” said Ms. Hall-Rivera. “We need strategically placed treatments, they need to be in the right places, and they need to be at the scale of the problem. Fires are out-pacing our fuels treatments, even the ones that are helping us. They’ve got to be larger and we’ve got to use all the tools in the tool box. That’s mechanical treatment, that’s herbicides, that’s chipping, that’s prescribed fire, and natural fire where it makes sense. We’ve got to have all the tools that are at our disposal to make a difference.”

“We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib brought up the issue of “homeless firefighters” who don’t make enough money to pay rent, so they live out of their cars.

Rep. Obernolte, said he is pro-vaccine but against vaccine mandates, which he said “…would really hamper our efforts over the next 12 months to fight wildfires. I feel that we might lose a substantial portion of our federal firefighting workforce.”

Ms. Martin said, “We in the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters haven’t heard the alarm, if you will, that there’s a lot of wildland firefighters that don’t want to take the vaccine. What we are hearing though is that there are people that are concerned who are in a work group that if someone is not vaccinated they may end up getting sick and then that whole entire crew is quarantined, they are not allowed to be deployed on fire assignments… also [would have] an impact on our response capabilities.”

In summing up the hearing, Ranking Member Russ Fulcher of Idaho said, “There is no question compensation is important. It is a critical part of any job and I’m not denying that in any way shape or form. I just don’t want to lose sight that the root problem we’re dealing with here on the ground is fuel load.”

wildland firefighting workforce reforms
House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Oct. 27, 2021, about wildland firefighting workforce reforms. President of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Kelly Martin, and in the background, someone chewing gum while wearing a torn face mask.

The article was edited to show that the article about 30-person hotshot crews was written by Tim Swedberg, not John Culbertson. We regret the error.

Congressional hearing scheduled for Oct. 27 about firefighter pay and job classification

Two pieces of legislation about wildland firefighters will be discussed

U. S. Capitol building
U. S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A hearing is scheduled in Washington, DC at 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday October 27, 2021 to discuss two pieces of legislation that would affect the pay and job classification of federal wildland firefighters.

The hearing before the House of Representatives Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands will be titled “Wildland Firefighting Workforce Reforms.”  Members of Congress will receive testimony on two bills:

  • H.R. 4274 Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act. (Rep. Zoe Lofgren). It would waive limitations on overtime and premium pay for wildland firefighters that affects higher level employees at the GS-12 and above level. If they work a certain number of overtime hours, they can now “max out”, after which they earn no more money. (The Wildfire Today article from Jan. 29, 2021 has more information about this bill.)
  • H.R. 5631 Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. (Rep. Joe Neguse). This bill has numerous provisions, including raising firefighter pay, creating a wildland firefighter job series, providing health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, housing stipends, and other items. (More details are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)

The full list of witnesses is not yet available but the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a group that participated in developing H.R. 5613, will be represented at the hearing by their President and Vice President, Kelly Martin and Luke Mayfield, respectively.

The committee’s web site has links to the written testimony of the witnesses.

A live stream should be available on YouTube when it begins at 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday.

In Congressional hearing Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recommended improved pay for federal wildland firefighters

He was asked about the Tamarack Fire which was not aggressively attacked for 13 days

2:27 p.m. PDT Oct. 13, 2021

USFS Chief Randy Moore
USFS Chief Randy Moore during Sept. 29, 2021 Congressional hearing.

In a Congressional committee hearing September 29 the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service hit a lot of the right notes in his testimony. It was before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. The hearing was titled, “The 2021 Wildland Fire Year: Responding to and mitigating threats to communities.”

In his prepared statement, Chief Randy Moore, apparently standing in front of a real or virtual photo of Mt. Shasta topped by lenticular clouds, said “America’s forests are in a state of emergency and it’s time to treat them like one.”

He spoke for several minutes about issues related to the status of federal wildland firefighters. Here is an excerpt:

“We must maintain a stable resilient firefighting force. That starts with taking care of our brave men and women who fight fires.

“They deserve better work/life balance and benefits. They deserve a supportive workplace in return for the grueling hard work they do. At a time of increased stress, suicide, and depression they also need counseling and support services to prevent tragedy. They deserve better pay, above all. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with states.

“We must also modernize our wildland fire management system. This includes improving the use of technology. It also includes upgrading our models and systems for decision making and strengthening our cooperative relationships.

“We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires. We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries. It must start with those places most critically at risk. We must treat 20 million acres over 10 years. Done right in the right places, treatments make a difference.”

Later the committee went on to talk more about firefighter pay, filling positions that are now occupied by detailers, aggressive forest management,  timber harvesting, and other issues.

An interesting but very brief discussion occurred at 1:41:08 (see the video above) when Representative Doug LaMalfa of California’s 1st Congressional District (Oroville) asked the Chief about a report of difficulties in the working relationship between the Forest Service and CAL FIRE that surfaced during the Caldor Fire west of South Lake Tahoe according to 60 Minutes September 26, 2021.

“I think I have different information than you do, Congressman,” the Chief said. “I am not aware of any problems between the Forest Service and CAL FIRE. As I indicated earlier that relationship is really solid. So, I am not aware of anything that might be going on.”

Earlier Representative LaMalfa tried to get the Chief to say the Forest Service is committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, but the Chief preferred to use the term “aggressive forest management.” (He later said that they already do aggressive initial attack.)

Representative LaMalfa asked about the Tamarack Fire near Markleeville, CA which started as a single tree on July 4, 2021 and was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small until it suddenly grew very large. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.

In the hearing Chief Moore said that after the fire started the Forest Service “spiked out a small crew to monitor” the fire. If that was the case, they apparently took no action, because the USFS reported on July 10 that it was 0.25 acre, they were not going to insert crews due to safety concerns, and it “posed no threat to the public, infrastructure, or resource values.”

In describing the situation, the Chief said that when the Tamarack Fire started on July 4 there were 100 large wildland fires and 27,000 fire personnel had been deployed. “We would have loved to have had enough crews to put on that fire,” the Chief said. “What we should be talking about is a very active forest management program. There will always be situations where you can second guess decisions that were made.”

The national Situation Report from July 5, 2021 shows that there were only 33 large uncontained fires at the time and 7,652 personnel had been mobilized. On July 22 the incident management team working on the Tamarack Fire reported that 1,200 personnel were assigned to the fire.

Congress solicits advice on wildland fire research

House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee
House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, June 29, 2021.

In a hearing Tuesday before the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee the topic was “The state of federal wildland fire science: examining opportunities for further research and coordination.” And just as promised, many topics were recommended for additional development and research.

There were four witnesses:

      • Dr. Craig B. Clements, San Jose State University
      • Dr. Jessica McCarty, Miami University
      • George Geissler, Washington DNR
      • Fire Chief Erik Litzenberg (Ret), International Association of Fire Chiefs

If you don’t have two and a half hours to watch the video below of the entire hearing, you can watch the prepared five-minute presentations of the four witnesses and get a good idea of the topics that were discussed. They begin at 26:30.

I made a list of the topics that were mentioned as needing more research:

  • Better systems for fire detection and modeling.
  • Systems for tracking the real time location of firefighters and other resources.
  • Increase the budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which was cut in half during the last four years.
  • Fire weather.
  • Deploy on fires what would be the equivalent of hurricane hunter aircraft for real time monitoring of fires and weather at fires.
  • Treat fire weather the same as other severe weather phenomena.
  • Continuous real time high resolution imagery of fires.
  • Operational community-based coupled fire atmosphere models.
  • Better geospatial and temporal resolution for monitoring fires.
  • Improved and standardized warning system for fires.

If you would like to see another point of view, check out a July 1 interview with Mark Finney by Saul Elbein in The Hill. Mr. Finney is a Research Forester with the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Early in the piece Mr. Finney said more prescribed fire was needed.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Equilibrium: What do you feel is missing from an approach centered on suppressing big fires?

Finney: The issue is, reactive management rarely works. My analogy is health care — if all health care was emergency rooms and ambulances, you’d have a health care disaster on your hands.

Because there’d be no preventive care. You’d have ambulances everywhere, people getting rushed off. But by the time you have emergency care, it’s too late.

People get engaged in looking for better satellites or mapping or sensors thinking: If we get better at reacting, we’ll solve the problem.

But that’s not true. If nature picks the time, place and conditions to start a fire, and you run around and deal — then you’re a moron. You’re just playing defense. You can’t win any contest by playing defense.

Forest Service Deputy Chief tells Senators the agency needs to increase fuels work and the pay of firefighters

Chris French recommended an increase in pay for firefighters and boosting fuel management projects by 200% to 400%

Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service
Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testifies before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 24, 2021.

It is not often that I watch a Senate or House committee hearing in which wildland fire was a topic and later feel positive about what I heard. The June 24 hearing before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was different. Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service gave citizens of the United States hope that the agency has a realistic view of the world for which the agency is responsible, and most importantly, can speak honestly to Senators about what they can do to help.

Mr. French answered questions about wildland fire and other topics from several Senators during the two-hour session. You can see the entire hearing at the Committee’s website — it begins at 32:50.

One of the most interesting topics to firefighters was the discussion about pay. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico spoke in clear text when he asked about pay — “How much should we be paying our entry level firefighters? And clearly it’s not $11 it’s not $13.”

“Well, I think clearly enough to support a family,”, Mr. French said, “And to compensate the risk that they take on behalf of the entire American public…. At the end of the day we’re training firefighters at the entry level and then losing them to other firefighting organizations because they are paying double or triple amounts.”

“What is the delta between what you’re paying and what CAL FIRE pays,” Senator Heinrich asked.

“Almost three times, at times”, said Mr. French.

Mr. French was very eloquent, answered questions clearly and concisely, and didn’t ramble on about personal issues. He mentioned that he started his FS career as a GS-4 firefighter in 1994. He should be invited back.

Here is an index of topics in the hearing that wildland firefighters might like to check out.

      • 56:20: Firefighters’ pay and a more professional workforce.
      • 1:45:10: “Quite frankly Senator, we haven’t had the resources to carry out [prescribed fire] work at the scale needed.”
      • 1:50:20: To deal with the backlog of fuels projects, “We have to scale up our work by at least two to four times what we’re doing right now.”
      • 2:19:20: How much should we be paying our firefighters?

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben.

Forest Service Chief calls for treating two to four times more hazardous fuels acres

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 17, 2021. (Still image from the Committee video.)

In what will be one of her last appearances in a Congressional hearing before she retires at the end of August, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen called repeatedly for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels.

Today she testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to defend the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2022 which begins October 1.

In addition to increasing the amount of timber harvested on Forest Service lands, the topic of reducing the number of devastating wildfires came up many times in the hour and a half hearing. A video is available on the Committee’s website.

Senator John Barrasso (WY) mentioned (at 27:49 in the video) that in an April hearing the chief said a paradigm shift was needed to reduce the hazard fuels in forests. He asked,  “Do we need to dramatically increase the number of [wildfire mitigation] acres treated annually?” Chief Christiansen said,”Yes… We can’t just do the same old thing we’ve always done, just treat whatever acres we can get to… We have a crisis. We have a crisis that needs to be addressed differently.”

The Chief said the agency treats about three million acres each year, but they need to treat two to four times that amount.

Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got the Chief to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” (at 39:25).

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group created a wildland fire glossary of terms, which includes their definition of “hazard fuels”:

A fuel complex defined by kind, arrangement, volume, condition, and location that presents a threat of ignition and resistance to control.

Senator Wyden addressed the possibility of a fire season this year that could be worse than average (at 36:40). He asked, “What is the plan for keeping people safe when there are fires in multiple communities in the West?”

Chief Christiansen said, in part, that in recent years there has been competition for firefighting resources when the number of fires have resulted in requests for firefighters and equipment that were unable to be filled, and later said, “Our system is at a breaking point.”

Senator Wyden asked the Chief to submit a “written statement on what the plans are if we are short on resources in the West.”

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) asked if the President’s proposed budget includes sufficient funding for battling wildfires, post-fire recovery, prevention, reducing hazard fuels, and addressing invasive species.

“Senator, it’s a step in the right direction. A significant step in the right direction… It helps in modernizing our wildland fire workforce. It does not get us every step that we need to be.

“I’m very concerned about our workforce,” she continued. “They are tired, and fatigued. Their mental well-being and stress that we are concerned about. Many of these folks are temporary employees and they try to make a year’s living in six to nine months. There are still more things to address, but this budget is a very good first step.

Senator Masto asked about the recruitment and retention challenges that the agency is facing (1:05:30).

“It’s a calling to do this work,” the Chief said. “But anybody should be able to have a living wage to do this work. We do have concerns about a competitive wage… We are committed to work with the Department of the Interior and others to do a comprehensive look at our workforce needs.”

“Please share that,” said Senator Masto. “It’s the same thing I’m hearing in my state from our fire chiefs. It’s a challenge. And this is something we have to address.”

Senator Angus King (Maine) said timber sales on public lands fell from 13 billion board feet in 1988 to 3.2 billion last year, a factor of five, he said. (1:13:07) “What in the hell happened,” he asked. Later he said, “Coincidentally from 1991 to 2020 the number of acres burned has gone up by a factor of five. Is there a connection?”

“Yes sir, there is,” the Chief quickly replied. The Senator moved on to another topic and did not allow her to fully explain why she thought there is a connection.