NBC News interviews Forestry Technicians about firefighting

NBC news article federal firefighters

The plight of the approximately 15,000 federal personnel who fight wildland fires and how they are being mismanaged and underpaid by the land management agencies has been receiving more notice in the last two months. The government will not call them firefighters while they perform one of the most hazardous jobs in the world, except when they are killed in the line of duty, instead preferring the title “Forestry Technician”.

The latest national news article on the topic was published today by NBC News, “Federal wildland firefighters say they’re burned out after years of low pay, little job stability.”

The piece frequently refers to the U.S. Forest Service and mentions the Bureau of Land Management, but three other federal agencies are just as guilty of the same types of systemic malpractice — Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and National Park Service.

Legislation that has been introduced could help mitigate conditions for Forestry Technicians and would actually describe them as “firefighters.”

Wildfire Today strongly endorses the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, S.1682 and H.R.8170 and the establishment of the wildland firefighter occupational series with a significant boost in their pay. These jobs are one of the most hazardous, and require a level of knowledge and skill that can take a decade or more to acquire and develop. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes — special forces — some of whom work well over 100 hours a week with only a few days off each month, traveling around the country separated from their families missing birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games. Recognizing them and paying what they deserve could improve retention which could enhance the overall quality of the workforce.

If you have an opinion about these pieces of legislation, contact your elected officials. If you support the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, feel free to borrow some of the words in the previous paragraph when you write to your legislators.

Pending legislation related to wildland fire

We endorse the bill to establish a federal wildland firefighter occupational series and a significant boost in their pay

U.S. Capitol building

In a typical Congressional session only three to five percent of bills that are introduced are actually passed and become law. In this two-year session which is drawing to a close so far only one percent have reached that status. So we don’t get too excited when a bill is introduced that looks like it would be beneficial to wildland fire or land management.

Having said that, there are at least four pending pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the last few months that could be of interest to wildland firefighters.


Wildland Fire Mitigation & Management Commission Act of 2020
Senator Mitt Romney announced the bill October 15 and it has not yet been introduced. As described by the Senator in a press release, it would establish a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders — including city and county level representation — to study and recommend fire mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.

The Commission would be jointly managed by the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Administrator of FEMA, and comprised of 25 members: 8 federal and 17 non-federal members.

It would develop two reports which would be presented to Congress:

  1. Recommendations to Mitigate and Manage Fires
  2. Firefighting Aircraft and Aircraft Parts Inventory Assessment

The fact that the Commission would not be dominated by or reporting to the U.S. Forest Service makes it an interesting concept.


National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 –  S.4625
Introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon September 17, 2020, it has two co-sponsors and has not been referred to committee. I could not find a House version. It seeks to expand the use of prescribed fire on federal land. Up to $300 million would be appropriated each year beginning in FY 2022 based on requests from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.

The funds could be used to carry out prescribed fire projects, hire additional personnel and procure equipment “including unmanned aerial systems equipped with an aerial ignition systems to implement a greater number of prescribed fires.” Also, to provide training, reseeding, and monitoring for fire effects.

It would authorize assistance to states and local governments:

“(A) to provide federally sponsored insurance administered by States, in conjunction with State- sponsored training and certification programs, for private persons implementing prescribed fires;
(B) to establish a training or certification program for teams comprised of citizens or local fire services to conduct prescribed fires on private land, consistent with any standards developed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group or State prescribed fire standards;
(C) to enable additional fire managers and apparatus, whether provided by the local resources of an agency, private contractors, nongovernmental organizations, Indian Tribes, local fire services, or qualified individuals, to be present while implementing a prescribed fire”

The bill requires the Agriculture and Interior departments to carry out prescribed fires each year on 1,000,000 to 20,000,000 acres. It also requires, subject to the availability of appropriations, not later than September 30, 2022, the Secretaries shall each have carried out a minimum of 1 prescribed fire on each unit of the National Forest System, unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, unit of the National Park System, and Bureau of Land Management district if the unit is at least 100 acres (with some exceptions).

It requires the hiring of additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires, authorizes noncompetitive conversions of seasonal firefighters to permanent, employment of formerly incarcerated individuals, establishment of training centers for prescribed fire, “managed-wildfire”, and a virtual prescribed fire training center.

The bill would establish by law that except in the case of gross negligence, a Federal employee planning or overseeing a prescribed fire that escaped– (1) shall not be subject to criminal prosecution; and (2) shall not be subject to civil proceedings, except in accordance with section 2672 of title 28, United States Code. It would also provide up to $1,000,000 to meet with state officials to discuss liability protection for state certified prescribed fire managers.


Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020S.4431 and H.R.7978
The Senate version was introduced September 16, 2020 by Senator Dianne Feinstein and has four co-sponsors. The House bill was introduced August 7, 2020 by Rep. Jimmy Panett and has nine co-sponsors. The Senate bill has only been introduced, while the House version has at least made it to committee.

It would require the USDA, in consultation with the Department of the Interior, to initiate three “forest landscape projects”, the definition of which is not more than 75,000 acres. The objectives would be to reduce the risk of wildfire, restore ecological health, and adapt the landscape to the increased risk of wildfire due to climate change.

The bill excludes certain forest management activities from environmental review requirements.

It authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to declare that an “emergency situation” exists, which would then allow:

“(A) the salvage of dead or dying trees;
(B) the harvest of trees damaged by wind or ice;
(C) the commercial and noncommercial sanitation harvest of trees to control insects or disease, including trees already infested with insects or disease;
(D) the reforestation or replanting of fire- impacted areas through planting, control of competing vegetation, or other activities that enhance natural regeneration and restore forest species”


Wildland Firefighter Recognition ActS.1682 and H.R.8170
Introduced in the House September 4, 2020 by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, and in the Senate May 23, 2020 by Senator Steve Daines. The Senate bill has gone nowhere, and the House version is in committee.

This bill requires the Office of Personnel Management to develop a distinct wildland firefighter occupational series. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture must use the series in the advertising and hiring of a wildland firefighter.

The bill requires an employee in a wildland firefighter occupational series to receive a pay differential based on the unusual physical hardship or hazardous nature of the position.

An individual employed as a wildland firefighter on the date on which the occupational series takes effect may (1) remain in the occupational series in which the individual is working, or (2) be included in the wildland firefighter occupational series.


Wildfire Today strongly endorses S.1682 and H.R.8170 and the establishment of the wildland firefighter occupational series with a significant boost in their pay. These jobs are one of the most hazardous, and require a level of knowledge and skill that can take a decade or more to acquire and develop. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, special forces, some of whom work well over 100 hours a week with only a few days off each month, traveling around the country separated from their families missing birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games. Recognizing them and paying what they deserve, could improve retention which could enhance the overall quality of the workforce.

If you have an opinion about these pieces of legislation, contact your elected officials. If you support the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, feel free to borrow some of the words in the previous paragraph when you contact your legislators.

Bill introduced to promote prescribed fire intends to reduce fire risk

It would appropriate $300M annually for the federal land management agencies’ prescribed fire programs. But are there other ways to reduce fire risk?

September 24, 2020 | 8:10 a.m. MDT

American Elk prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park
A firefighter ignites the American Elk prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 20, 2010. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would make large sums of money available to increase the number of acres treated with prescribed fire (also known as controlled burns).

It has been fashionable during the last two years to blame “forest management” for the large, devastating wildfires that have burned thousands of homes in California. According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Research conducted in 2019 to identify barriers to conducting prescribed fires found that in the 11 western states the primary reasons cited were lack of adequate capacity and funding, along with a need for greater leadership direction and incentives. Barriers related to policy requirements tended to be significant only in specific locations or situations, such as smoke regulations in the Pacific Northwest or protecting specific threatened and endangered species.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, Senate Bill 4625, which was introduced last week by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and two cosponsors, would help address the capacity issue by appropriating $300 million for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan, prepare, and conduct controlled burns on federal, state, and private lands. It would also provide $10 million for controlled burns on county, state and private land that are at high risk of burning in a wildfire. Additionally, the bill establishes an incentive program that would provide $100,000 to a State, county, and Federal agency for any controlled burns larger than 50,000 acres. (Summary and text of the bill)

In order to carry out the projects, the legislation would establish a workforce development program at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to develop, train, and hire prescribed fire practitioners, and creates employment programs for Tribes, veterans, women, and those formerly incarcerated.

In an effort to address air quality control barriers,  the bill “Requires state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns, and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.” The legislation will allow some prescribed fire projects larger than 1,000 acres to be exempt from air quality regulations.


Our Take

Appropriating more funds and hiring additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires could definitely result in more acres treated. If the bill passes, it would be a large step in the right direction. It is notable that the bill specifically mentions hiring those who were formerly incarcerated. Those who served time for non-violent offenses often deserve another chance, especially if they learned the firefighting trade on a state or county inmate fire crew.

There are many benefits of prescribed fires, including more control over the adverse health effects of smoke, improving forest health, and returning fire to dependent ecosystems.

But it gets complicated when prescribed fire is expected to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, as cited in a release issued last week by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

One provision of the bill is poorly worded and is confusing. In Section 102 it is either saying that no later than September 30, 2022 every unit of the USFS, FWS, NPS, and BIA must conduct a prescribed fire larger than 100 acres, possibly only applying to units west of the 100th meridian. Or, it might be interpreted as meaning each unit larger than 100 acres must conduct at least one prescribed fire. But either way it is ridiculous and arbitrary. Some 100-acre units might never be suitable for prescribed fire. Planning to use fire as a tool is based on science and the determination that treating an area with fire is PRESCRIBED in order to accomplish a number of specific objectives, not well-meaning but possibly detrimental legislation.

Scenario #1, Moderate fire conditions

There is no doubt that if a wildfire is spreading under moderate conditions of fuels and weather (especially wind), when the blaze moves into an area previously visited by any kind of fire the rate of spread, intensity, and resistance to control will decrease. Firefighters will have a better chance of stopping it at that location. The size of that earlier fire footprint will be a factor in the effectiveness of stopping the entire fire, since the wildfire may burn through, around, or over it by spotting. The availability of firefighting resources to quickly take advantage of what may be a temporary reduction in intensity is also critical. Unless the prescribed fire occurred within the last year or so there is usually adequate fuel to carry a fire (such as grass, leaves, or dead and down woody fuel) depending on the vegetation type and time of year. It is much like using fire retardant dropped by air tankers. Under ideal conditions, the viscous liquid will slow the spread long enough for firefighters on the ground to move in and put out the fire in that area. If those resources are not available, the blaze may eventually burn through or around the retardant.

Scenario #2, Extreme fire conditions

The wildfires that burn hundreds or thousands of homes usually occur during extreme conditions. What the most disastrous fires have in common is drought, low fuel moisture, low relative humidity, and most importantly, strong wind. In the last few weeks in California and Oregon we have seen blazes under those conditions spread for dozens of miles in 24 hours.

Rich McCrea, the Fire Behavior Analyst on the recent North Complex near Quincy, CA, said the wind on September 8 pushed the fire right through areas in forests that had been clear cut, running 30 miles in about 18 hours.

We can’t log our way out of the fire problem.

Sheltering from the Creek Fire at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir
Burning embers lofted by the Creek Fire are seen as people are sheltering at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir Boat Launch, Sept. 5, 2020 in Northern California. Photo by Cameron Colombero, via Mike Ikahihifo.

On September 8, 2020 the Almeda Drive Fire burned 3,200 acres in Southern Oregon — it was not a huge fire, but there were huge losses. The 40 to 45 mph wind aligned with the Interstate 5 corridor as it burned like a blowtorch for 8 miles, starting north of Ashland and tearing through the cities of Talent and Phoenix. Approximately 2,357 structures were destroyed — but not all by a massive flaming front. Burning embers carried up to thousands of feet by the fire landed in receptive fuels near or on some structures, setting them alight.

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
A portion of the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

What can be done to reduce fire losses?

Jack Cohen is a retired U.S. Forest Service Research fire scientist who has spent years determining how structures ignite during extreme wildfires. In a September 21, 2020 article he wrote for Wildfire Today with Dave Strohmaier, they addressed how homes ignite during extreme wildfires.

“Surprisingly, research has shown that home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ – to homes directly and nearby flammables leading to homes. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the minuscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential fuels – homes, other structures, and vegetation – continue fire spread within the community.

“Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable, however, by reducing home ignition potential within the HIZ we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.”

"Community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem." Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier.

Again, prescribed fire has many benefits to forests and ecosystems, and Congress would be doing the right thing to substantially increase its funding.

But in order to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, we need to think outside the box — look at where the actual problem presents itself. The HIZ.

I asked Mr. Cohen for his reaction to the proposed legislation that he and I were not aware of when the September 21 article was published.

“Ignition resistant homes, and collectively communities, can be readily created by eliminating and reducing ignition vulnerabilities within the HIZ,” Mr. Cohen wrote in an email. “This enables the prevention of wildland-urban fire disasters without necessarily controlling extreme wildfires. Ironically, ignition resistant homes and communities can facilitate appropriate ecological fire management using prescribed burning. The potential destruction of homes from escaped prescribed burns is arguably a principal obstacle for restoring fire as an appropriate ecological factor. Therefore, it is unlikely that ecologically significant prescribed burning at landscape scales will occur without ignition resistant homes and communities.”

Here are some suggestions that could be considered for funding along with an enhanced prescribed fire program.

  • Provide grants to homeowners that are in areas with high risk from wildland fires. Pay a portion of the costs of improvements or retrofits to structures and the nearby vegetation to make the property more fire resistant. This could include the cost of removing some of the trees in order to have the crowns at least 18 feet apart if they are within 30 feet of the structures — many homeowners can’t afford the cost of complete tree removal.
  • Cities and counties could establish systems and procedures for property owners to easily dispose of the vegetation and debris they remove.
  • Hire crews that can physically help property owners reduce the fuels near their homes when it would be difficult for them to do it themselves.
  • Provide grants to cities and counties to improve evacuation capability and planning, to create community safety zones for sheltering as a fire approaches, and to build or improve emergency water supplies to be used by firefighters.

Our article “Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities” has even more ideas.

Members of Congress call for increased support for wildfire preparedness

Warehouse at the National Interagency Fire Center
Warehouse at the National Interagency Fire Center. Screenshot from NIFC video.

On June 15 Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) led 18 members of Congress in the California Delegation in calling on House leadership to ensure that any future legislative package focused on infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation include robust funds to address deferred maintenance and wildland fire preparedness needs in the U.S. National Forest System.

“For a long time, the U.S. Forest Service has not received sufficient funding to adequately complete its necessary infrastructure projects.  That backlog increases the threat to communities across the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region, including California, as we move into the 2020 wildfire season,” said Congressman Panetta.  “As Congress considers legislation for infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation, we must fight for more funding for Forest Service projects that will not only generate jobs, but also give our federal firefighters the necessary tools to prepare for wildfires and keep our communities safe.”

“It is important to note that the current backlog of projects in the USFS Pacific Southwest Region is particularly concerning as the state of California progresses deeper into its 2020 wildfire season, with fire officials predicting higher-than-normal fire potential through the fall.  As the Region works to swiftly implement new wildfire suppression tactics to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread at base camps, it is all the more important that USFS employees have access to working infrastructure,” the members wrote.

The text of the letter sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is below:


June 15, 2020

Dear Speaker Pelosi and Leader McCarthy:

As Congress works to develop and disburse immediate relief to communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also consider the investments needed to bring tens of millions of people back to work to rebuild a stronger, more sustainable economy. To this end, we write to you to ensure that any future legislative package focused on infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation include robust funds to address deferred maintenance and wildland fire preparedness needs in the U.S. National Forest System.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across our nation have turned to National Forests as spaces to safely spend time outdoors while adhering to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) physical distancing guidelines. Additionally, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) roads and bridges are playing a key role in ensuring rural communities can safely reach grocery stores and hospitals during the pandemic. At the same time, our National Forest System is suffering from $5.2 billion worth of backlogged repairs for roads and road bridges, trails, and facilities, which far exceeds the $446 million included in the fiscal year 2019 USFS budget for infrastructure improvement and maintenance.

In the USFS Pacific Southwest Region, which includes eighteen national forests spanning 20 million acres of land in California, a recent Regional review identified over 90 deferred maintenance projects with critical safety components for administrative facilities, fire facilities, and employee housing, including five priority projects on each National Forest in the state. Completion of these projects would reduce maintenance costs, improve visitor experiences, support employee recruitment and retention, and allow for additional modifications needed to protect employees, particularly in light of COVID-19. Notably, funding these projects would also create hundreds of jobs across the state.

It is important to note that the current backlog of projects in the USFS Pacific Southwest Region is particularly concerning as the state of California progresses deeper into its 2020 wildfire season, with fire officials predicting higher-than-normal fire potential through the fall. As the Region works to swiftly implement new wildfire suppression tactics to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread at base camps, it is all the more important that USFS employees have access to working infrastructure.

To keep these federal employees and the rural communities they serve safe, we urge you to provide funding for the design and construction of new fire cache facilities and updated airtanker bases throughout the state. By replacing the debilitated and aging Northern and Southern Operations Geographic Area Caches, the USFS Pacific Southwest Region would be able to significantly reduce leasing costs and increase wildfire preparedness. Similarly, by updating the infrastructure at airtanker bases, the USFS would be able to generate jobs, more rapidly deploy large airtankers to the fire line, and enhance initial attack effectiveness to protect communities and firefighters.

In addition to prioritizing the aforementioned physical infrastructure projects, we urge you to include funding for technology updates needed to provide real-time tracking and response of firefighting resources, particularly during rapidly escalating wildfires. With upgraded information technology, firefighting teams will not only be able to virtually access weather and other incidental information but also share information in real time with other firefighting teams. This type of collaboration will significantly enhance the common operating picture for all levels of a firefighting organization.

For decades, the USFS has struggled with insufficient funds to address critical infrastructure needs, and every year, the backlog of projects becomes increasingly overwhelming. As the COVID-19 pandemic puts new and unknown pressures on our National Forest System, we cannot wait any longer to prioritize these projects.

Over the coming weeks, as you work to make critical funding decisions to address the current unemployment crisis, we ask that you strongly consider the high potential for USFS projects in the Pacific Southwest Region to create thousands of sustainable jobs, particularly during a time of heightened need for effective USFS services. As the Pacific Southwest Region has already completed a comprehensive review of projects, we encourage Congressional investments directly to the Region so these projects can move forward in a timely manner.

Sincerely,

Jimmy Panetta
Member of Congress

Legislation introduced to provide benefits for families of firefighters killed by COVID-19

Senators are also seeking hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

David Ruhl memorial service
The memorial service for fallen U.S. Forest Service firefighter David Ruhl, Rapid City, SD August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to ensure families of public safety officers lost to COVID-19 can quickly access survivor benefits.

(UPDATE at 10:40 a.m. MDT May 15, 2020: the Senate passed the bill. Now it goes to the House of Representatives)

The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act (SAFR), led by senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), clarifies the certification requirements for survivor benefits under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program (PSOB) to account for the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Cruz (R-Texas), Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tillis (R-N.C.), Coons (D-Del.), Daines (R-Mont.), Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Scott (R-Fla.), Menendez (D-N.J.), Loeffler (R-Ga.), Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Moran (R-Kan.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The PSOB program provides the families of public safety officers who are killed in the line of duty with a one-time lump sum payment of $359,316 and/or education assistance of $1,224.00 per month to their children or spouse. Wildland firefighters who work for the federal agencies are included in the PSOB program.

Infectious diseases are covered under a line-of-duty death as long as evidence indicates that the infectious disease was contracted while on duty. Providing evidence that a deadly disease was contracted on duty can be straightforward in instances where an officer comes into contact with a dirty needle, however in the case of COVID-19, it can be very difficult to provide evidence that the virus was contracted on duty.

What the bill does:

  • Creates a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty, the Department of Justice will treat it as a line of duty incident.
  • The presumption will guarantee payment of benefits to any first responder who dies from COVID-19 or a complication therefrom.
  • The presumption will run from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021.
  • The presumption will require a diagnosis of COVID-19 or evidence indicating that the officer had COVID-19 at the time of death. This covers officers in high impact areas where finding tests can be difficult.

Another proposal – Hazard pay

A group of 19 Senators have sent letters  to the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget requesting 25 percent hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

The letter is below:

2020-05-05 Senators Letter … by FedSmith Inc. on Scribd

Firefighters that are already victims of COVID-19

Victor Stagnaro of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation said on May 8, 2020 they are tracking 26 people connected with fire departments and 30 Emergency Medical Services personnel whose deaths appear to be caused by COVID-19.

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

The future of wildfire: a year-round challenge requires a year-round workforce

Seasonal firefighter positions need to be converted to career seasonal or full-time permanents

firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada. The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 calls for a $50 million increase to hire more firefighters, converting many temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. (Photo courtesy BLM Nevada)

BY JEFF RUPERT
The nature of wildfire and the risks associated with it have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In most areas the window in which wildfires traditionally occur has grown from five to seven months of the year. Taking regional differences into account—California, Florida, and Montana burn at different times of the year—we no longer have “fire seasons” in the United States. We have “fire years.”

These changes are compounded by how much fires have grown. The average number of acres burned by decade is double what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Over that same time span, the wildland urban interface—those bits of land that blend housing and the natural, burnable world—has grown by 40%, putting more far more people at risk to wildfire.

Land managers around the world face significant challenges. The recent wildfires in Australia illustrate the gravity of the situation and the tremendous risk to communities. People in California continue to recover from wildfires that claimed lives and homes. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said earlier this year, “This is an issue that impacts the whole country, and we’re looking broadly at what we can do to reduce wildfire risk.”

The Department of the Interior recruits a workforce of thousands to manage wildland fire on public and Tribal lands across the country. Most of these people work in temporary appointments limited to six months. But if fires are no longer seasonal, should our workforce be?

The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a proposal to greatly expand and stabilize the wildland fire workforce. It calls for a $50 million increase to fund an additional 601 full-time equivalents*, converting many of our temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. This funding would provide over one million additional labor hours every year, enabling us to respond to wildfires during peak periods and complete active vegetation management projects like prescribed fires during times of low fire activity.

Expanding our cadre of permanent employees builds resiliency and sustainability into our programs. On average, temporary seasonal employees remain on the job two years, while career seasonal employees serve an average of 14 years. Constantly hiring and training new people is not only expensive, it robs us of the experienced, knowledgeable, senior firefighters we so desperately need.

Establishing career appointment positions also provides firefighters a reliable income and year-round benefits like access to healthcare and support organizations. Firefighters deserve these things given the tasks that lie ahead for all of us.

*Full-time equivalent (or FTE) is the annual number of “work years” produced by employees. A “work year” is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.


Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).