TBT: Wally Bennett: "We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job"

For Throwback Thursday we are revisiting an article published February 28, 2008 about an issue that is still before us today.

At a three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, Wally Bennett, a Type 1 Incident Commander, told the group that climate change and fewer air tankers and hand crews are making the job of wildland firefighters more difficult.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

“Coming summers will bring more and bigger wildfires to the Northern Rockies. But it also will bring fewer firefighters, less equipment for them to use, and more and more homes to protect in flammable landscapes.

That’s the message spelled out Tuesday by climate and firefighting experts at a conference at the Bozeman Holiday Inn.

“We’ve got a lot less of the toys we need to do the job we’re doing out there,” said Wally Bennett, a veteran commander of a Type I incident command team, the type of force that tackles large and complex blazes.

Bennett was one of the speakers at the three-day conference organized by FireSafe Montana, a fledgling nonprofit group that is trying to motivate landowners, county governments, developers and other entities to do more to protect private land before wildfire reaches it.

Several years ago, Bennett said, firefighting teams had 32 large retardant planes available to them. Last year, they had 16.

The number of 20-person hand teams has declined from roughly 750 to about 450 over the same time period, he said, and that number is likely to fall further.

“There’s not enough to go around,” he said.

That’s partly because a rookie firefighter can earn about the same pay flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Meanwhile, a warming climate is bringing earlier snowmelt along with hotter, drier summers, said Faith Anne Heisch, a climate researcher who works with Steve Running, the University of Montana professor who was part of the Nobel-prize winning International Panel on Climate Change.”

TBT: Pay and Retention Issues for U.S. Forest Service in Calif.

For Throwback Thursday, an issue that was a serious problem in 2008 has gotten much worse since we published this article on Wildfire Today February 14, 2008.

The Associated Press is picking up on the pay and retention issues the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are facing in California. The USFS is losing a great many experienced firefighters to CalFire and other fire departments in the state who pay much higher salaries than the federal agencies.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“WASHINGTON – A top federal official acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service is losing federal firefighters in California to state and county departments that pay more.

But Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, told concerned lawmakers he’s still evaluating how much of a problem that is. “On the one hand you hate to lose trained people. On the other hand they’re still fighting fires under a unified command system,” Rey told a hearing of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee. “They’re going to be on the fire line along with the federal firefighters.”

Lawmakers convinced there is a problem ordered the Forest Service to come up with a plan by Feb. 1 to increase recruitment and retention for Southern California forests. That deadline has passed but the agency is working on it, officials said.”

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.

Eldorado Hotshots featured on Vice News

October 27, 2020   |   6 a.m. MDT

Eldorado Hotshots, Vice News
Eldorado Hotshots, screenshot from Vice News

Vice News produced an excellent introduction to the world of hotshot crews. In 12 minutes they interview the Superintendent of the El Dorado Hotshots, Ben Strahan, and others on the crew, as well as a few of their family members. And importantly, they ask a former hotshot why he felt he had to move on to another job, discussing the inadequate pay federal firefighters earn, and the effects on family life by constantly having to work overtime in order to make enough money to get by.

The camera crew spent some time on the fireline with the crew, capturing video that the public rarely sees.

Vice News also produced a 30-minute podcast with the crew.

Senators call for creation of wildland firefighter job series and an increase in firefighters’ pay

In August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled

Firefighter on the Myrtle Fire
Firefighter on the Myrtle Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, July 22, 2012.

The way the federal government manages wildland firefighters made a small step recently toward gaining enough attention that their issues might be acted upon somewhere down the road. In addition to the legislation that has been introduced this year to establish a wildland firefighter job series and pay them a living wage, two senators wrote a letter to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior asking for those issues to be addressed, and also to waive the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel and convert seasonal firefighters to permanent.

The letter pointed out that in August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled. In a record-setting year for fires in California and Colorado, having about six percent of the jobs vacant is a problem. Is is also an indication that retention is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The letter was written by the two senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Talking about improving the firefighter program does not accomplish anything, alone. Writing a letter to the Secretaries is a slightly stronger step, as is introducing legislation. PASSING meaningful legislation to make these improvements is what needs to be done, if the executive branch of government can’t or won’t do it on their own.

Below is the full text of the letter written by the senators:

October 19, 2020

The Honorable Sonny Perdue                         The Honorable David Bernhardt

Secretary of Agriculture                                 Secretary of the Interior

1400 Independence Avenue, SW                   1849 C Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20250                                Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Perdue and Secretary Bernhardt:

As California and the West contend with yet another historic and destructive wildfire season, it has become clear that we are entering a “new normal” in which increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc during a nearly year-round fire season. So far this year, California has had over 8,600 wildfires, which have burned a record-setting 4.1 million acres, killed 31 people, and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and structures. Given the increasing demands placed on firefighters and the fact that the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California, federal firefighting agencies must adapt to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need. To that end, we write with three requests:

1.  In conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, please review and consider increasing the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for all wildland firefighters employed by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. As a part of this effort, we urge you to consider creating a new, separate job series and GS pay scale for federal wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with other firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.

The Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service has informed us that “hiring and retention is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high cost of living, increasing minimum wage and the significant discrepancy in salary compensation compared to other wildland fire organizations in [California].” For example, the annual base salary for an entry-level Cal Fire firefighter is $58,000; whereas the base salary for an entry-level Forest Service firefighter stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area is just $33,912. The Pacific Southwest Region has further informed us that as a direct result of low, non-competitive pay, nearly 600 Forest Service firefighter positions (seasonal and permanent) were unfilled as of August—a time when California’s fire activity increased substantially. Federal firefighters are specialized workers who face great risk to protect our families, homes, businesses and natural resources. Their salaries must reflect that, and we simply cannot afford to have so many firefighter positions unfilled.

2.  Please examine and consider waiving the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel who exceed the GS pay ceiling while working overtime on wildfire emergencies. If Congressional action is necessary to waive these restrictions, please indicate so.

It is our understanding that some federal firefighters are working so many extra hours that they will soon reach the annual pay cap for GS employees and become ineligible for overtime compensation. Being asked to work for no pay places an unfair expectation on federal firefighters. It also serves as a dangerous disincentive for personnel to respond to fires, especially later in the season when conditions are often most dangerous in California. Given that states face different peaks in their fire seasons, we must ensure that federal firefighters remain available later in the year when California’s wildfires are often at their worst.

3.  Please consider reclassifying seasonal federal firefighter positions as permanent, and let us know what additional resources or authorities you might need from Congress to do so.

It has become increasingly clear that wildfires in the West are no longer a seasonal phenomenon and that we can, therefore, no longer afford to have 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.

Some of California’s largest active wildfires—including the biggest in State history, which has now exceeded 1 million acres—are burning on federal land. While we are grateful that Cal Fire, local agencies, and other states and countries have sent crews to help fight wildfires on federal lands, the federal government must address the long-term issues with our federal firefighting workforce. Making salaries competitive enough to fill positions and retain personnel, addressing overtime caps, and transitioning seasonal roles to permanent posts are critical first steps. We urge you to address them as soon as possible, and we stand ready to help.


(end of letter)

For more on Wildfire Today about these issues:

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.”

Update August 12, 2020. For some of the statistics mentioned in the letter below, reference "A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides", The Atlantic, 2017; and, "Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is 'astronomical' ”, Wildfire Today, 2017.

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.)