GAO reports on barriers to recruitment and retention of federal wildland firefighters

Silver City Hotshots
Silver City Hotshots conduct firing operations along Hwy 518 west of Holman during night shift for the Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, 2022. Photo by Santa Fe National Forest.

Today the Government Accountability Office released a report about the difficulties the federal agencies are having recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters.

Congress requested the report, but apparently did not ask for recommendations. The 41-page document identifies numerous issues that adversely affect recruitment and retention, most of which are already well known to the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service,  Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Barriers To firefighter R&R OPM
From the November 17, 2022 GAO report.

The report goes into detail about each of the major challenges, after receiving input from officials in the five agencies and a sample of 16 nonfederal stakeholders—including nongovernmental organizations representing active and retired federal firefighters and other organizations involved in firefighting issues, such as the National Association of State Foresters and the Western Governors’ Association.

Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.

Some of the efforts being taken to improve hiring and retention are mentioned, including addressing pay, and offering slightly more time at home between fire assignments.

But much remains to be done, especially towards pay and a new Wildland Firefighter job series, which the five agencies have made very little progress developing.

Number of federal wildland firefighters by agency
Number of federal wildland firefighters by agency, from Nov. 17, 2022 GAO report.

Download the 41-page GAO report.

Legislation update: bills introduced to retain Giant Sequoias and wildland firefighters

burned Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP, November, 2021. NPS photo by Daniel Jeffcoach.

At Wildfire Today we don’t get too excited about proposed legislation because most of it is introduced, sent to a committee, and is never seen again. But pending, there are two that will interest land managers and wildland firefighters and may have a better than 50/50 chance of passing.

Save Our Sequoias

Today House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield-23) and co-author House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced the Save Our Sequoias (SOS) act.

These trees that can live for up to 3,000 years need protection. This should include actively managing and reducing the surrounding hazardous fuels. In addition, when firefighting resources are scarce, which seems to be the new normal, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups need to consider the irreplaceable value of these iconic groves when allocating personnel and equipment for going fires. Some may say these behemoths are at least, if not more, valuable than man-made structures that also may need protection from nearby fires.

Do we need a new paradigm for protecting iconic groves of remaining giant sequoias?

Preliminary surveys found that in a two year period, 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle FireEarly estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years.

At this rate, with this climate, we could lose the rest of these massive trees in just a few years.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The darker green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

Please watch this video to see how urgent the issue is.

The film was produced by Kyle Dickman and the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District thanks to a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board’s Forest conservation Program.

Despite the looming threat to the remaining Giant Sequoias, federal land managers have not been able to increase the pace and scale of treatments necessary to restore Giant Sequoia resiliency to wildfires, insects, and drought. At its current pace, it would take the U.S. Forest Service approximately 52 years to treat just their 19 highest priority Giant Sequoia groves at high-risk of experiencing devastating wildfires. Without urgent action, we are at risk of losing our iconic trees in the next several years. Accelerating scientific forest management practices will not only improve the health and resiliency of these thousand-year-old trees but also enhance air and water quality and protect critical habitat for important species like the Pacific Fisher.

The SOS Act will provide land managers with the emergency tools and resources needed to save these remaining ancient wonders from the unprecedented peril threatening their long-term survival. The bill would:

  • Enhance coordination between federal, state, tribal and local land managers through shared stewardship agreements and the codification of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, a partnership between the current Giant Sequoia managers.
  • Create a Giant Sequoia Health and Resiliency Assessment to prioritize wildfire risk reduction treatments in the highest-risk groves and track the progress of scientific forest management activities.
  • Declare an emergency to streamline and expedite environmental reviews and consultations while maintaining robust scientific analysis.
  • Provide new authority to the National Park Foundation and National Forest Foundation to accept private donations to facilitate Giant Sequoia restoration and resiliency.
  • Establish a comprehensive reforestation strategy to regenerate Giant Sequoias in areas destroyed by recent catastrophic wildfires.

Neither the text or a summary of the bill, H.R.8168, is available, but on the day it was introduced listed 26 cosponsors — 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

$1,000 Recruitment or Retention bonus for wildland firefighters

An amendment has been added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2023, H.R.7900, which would pay a recruitment or retention bonus of not less than $1,000 to Federal wildland firefighters. The minimum amount would be increased each year according to the Consumer Price Index. It would be available once a year to any primary or secondary firefighter after successfully completing the Work Capacity Test.

‘‘Federal wildland firefighter’’ is defined as “any temporary, seasonal, or permanent position at the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior that maintains group, emergency incident management, or fire qualifications, as established annually by the Standards for Wildland Fire Position Qualifications published by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and primarily engages in or supports wildland fire management activities, including forestry and rangeland technicians and positions concerning aviation, engineering heavy equipment operations, or fire and fuels management.”

It does not appropriate any additional funding to pay the bonuses, but the dollars could most likely come from the salaries from unfilled positions.

The NDAA is far from being passed, but this is a high priority piece of legislation which is sometimes used as a vehicle for slipping in unrelated bills. The 2014 NDAA, for example, included authorization and $130 million to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the US Forest Service to be used as air tankers. But that’s a long, sad, story with a couple of unexpected twists. (Unless there are still more delays, one or more may be actually flying over fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, not the Forest Service, in 2023.)

A correction was made to the dates in which nearly 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years.

Contract videographer captures a slice of hotshot crew life on a fire

BLM video The Wild Land
Still image from BLM video, “The Wild Land”. Videography by Matt Irving.

In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management Craig Interagency Hotshot Crew was joined on a two-week assignment by a Bureau of Land Management Fire program contract videographer, Matt Irving. He was able to capture the crew while assigned to incidents in California and Montana.

BLM video The Wild Land
Still image from BLM video, “The Wild Land”. Videography by Matt Irving.

The videography is excellent and gives the viewer a small sample of what it is like to work on a hotshot crew. It is one of the best examples I have seen about the work being performed routinely by these public servants. Check it out, below.

This is a great example of why the federal land management agencies must emphasize the importance of assigning contract photographers and videographers to capture images of fires and the personnel who manage them. In these times of very challenging recruitment, this could be a small step toward encouraging potential applicants. Obviously the BLM recognizes its value. Here is how they described the video when it was posted on their Facebook page this week:

Looking for a #FireJob? Have you ever thought about applying for one of the 13 Bureau of Land Management’s Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs)? If so, take a moment to watch “The Wild Land” video by Matt Irving, as he followed the Bureau of Land Management – Colorado Craig IHC and hear about why they love working in The Wild Lands! #NotYourOrdinaryJob #WeAreBLMFire


CBS probes recruiting and retention problems in the US Forest Service

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Jay Walter.

Saturday morning CBS broadcast an 8-minute piece on national TV that laid out some of the issues causing the recruitment and retention issues for wildland firefighters in the federal land management organizations. They interviewed several very experienced firefighters including some who resigned. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was confronted about his statement before a Congressional Committee that 90 percent of firefighting positions were filled. It turns out he was assuming that 100 percent of the job offers were accepted, which was not accurate.

Report that Forest Service firefighting positions in California are just 65% to 70% filled

Approximately 35 percent of entry- to mid-level positions on engine crews are filled in California

La Grande Hotshots on a fire in New Mexico
La Grande Hotshots on a fire in New Mexico, May, 2022. Photo by Lagrande Hotshots.

As the Western states enter the traditional wildland fire season there is a report that only 65 to 70 percent of US Forest Service firefighting positions in California are filled. An article written by Brianna Sacks of BuzzFeed News stated that about 1,200 full-time positions are unfilled in the state. Approximately 35 percent of entry- to mid-level positions on engine crews are filled, as are about half of the similar positions on hotshot crews.

An excerpt from the article:

With the open positions, some units are left unable to operate their engines at all. A recent internal document tallying engine staffing across California also obtained by BuzzFeed News shows that about half of 260 Forest Service engines are either understaffed, so they can’t run seven days a week, or not staffed at all. That’s resulted in about 35 engines being “on blocks,” or inoperable.

Hotshot crews that can’t meet the rigid interagency standards for staffing and training will not be able to respond to a fire as a hotshot crew, and will be reduced to becoming a less qualified Type 2 crew, or forming “modules” of smaller numbers of personnel. Some of them may export their personnel to fill in on engines so that THOSE resources can respond.

Over the last two years, at least, the five federal land management agencies that hire large numbers of wildland firefighters have been experiencing increasing difficulties recruiting and retaining personnel. Reasons cited by current and former firefighters include very low pay, long hours, too much time away from home, too little time with families, limited opportunities for career growth, and the temporary and sometimes life-altering physical injuries experienced by these tactical athletes.

It takes five to seven years for a wildland firefighter to soak up enough experience and training to reach a lower to mid-level leadership position, and 15 years or more to begin to serve in the higher ranking positions day to day and while assigned to fires. With people at all levels resigning, the federal agencies are losing not only corporate knowledge but the hard-earned proficiency of safely and efficiently suppressing small and large wildfires while supervising dozens or hundreds of emergency workers performing one of the more dangerous jobs on the planet. A resigning senior firefighter with 15 years of experience “slides” in his brain can’t be replaced overnight with a person off the street.

Implementing the pay raises that were signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would be a huge step in the right direction. The agencies knew several months before the legislation was signed in November that it was most likely going to happen, so they have had nearly a year to plan for and implement this requirement. It is not optional. It’s the law. And while the USFS and DOI fiddle, the United States will burn, more engines will be “on blocks”, and some hotshot crews will disappear at least on paper.

Any visible progress has been slow. Today on the Forest Service website Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Jaelith Hall-Rivera, who has become the public point person for implementing the pay raises, issued what she described as an update:

In the next few weeks, we will make announcements about the firefighter occupational series and the increased payment that is funded in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law…We understand your frustration and thank each and every one of you for your patience. Implementation has taken longer than any of us could have expected but getting it right is important.

There have been few signs of “patience.”

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Federal Employees is very concerned about what they have learned about proposed changes.

If the exodus is not reversed, the ability of the federal  agencies to fight fires and treat fuels is at stake — during a time when there is a goal of quadrupling the number of acres treated by prescribed fire and mechanized methods. Who is going to onboard new employees, plan the projects, meet with stakeholders, obtain environmental clearances, issue contracts, run the chain saws, and carry the drip torches? And who is going to fill the slots on the shrinking Incident Management Teams?

All while escalating wildfire activity demands MORE skilled and qualified fire personnel, not fewer.

Dispatch center in Bozeman, MT to close

Reasons cited include difficulty in filling positions

Map -- Custer Gallatin NF western region

One of the three dispatch centers that serve the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana is closing. Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center has been the smallest of the three and multiple factors over the last decade have created a situation where the center is not sustainable, according to information released by the Forest:

Fire seasons are generally longer and often intense, increasing the expectations from dispatch centers that directly support firefighters. Additional policy changes affecting aircraft dispatching and the cost of living to attract dispatchers to Bozeman, MT are also factors.

Over the last three years, Bozeman dispatch has tried unsuccessfully to recruit and fill the Initial Attack dispatcher position in several separate hiring events. The cost of living in Bozeman was cited as the biggest deterrent to accepting a position.

The Forest Service (FS) and the other agencies staffing the Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center have decided that the Bozeman-based dispatch center “will transition to Billings,” meaning, Bozeman Dispatch will close.

Marna Daley, the Public Affairs Officer for the Custer Gallatin NF told Wildfire Today that the organizational chart for the Bozeman Dispatch Center had five positions supplied by the Forest Service — two permanent full-time, one permanent part-time, and two seasonals. Because of the difficulty in filling the jobs there, in recent years typically there were only two FS personnel in the office. Ms. Daley said with so many vacant positions at Bozeman, they often brought in detailers or used other methods to take up the slack.

As this transition is occurring, and with it being early in the fire season, only one position is filled, and that person has accepted a different job on the Forest.

dispatch center -- Great Plains in Rapid City, SD
Example of a dispatch center — Great Plains in Rapid City, SD. January 25, 2012.

The Billings Interagency Dispatch Center is staffed by workers not only from the FS, but also the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. The FS’s contribution will be three permanent full-time positions and one seasonal.

But in recent years both Bozeman and Billings have operated at low staffing levels with critical unfilled vacancies. 

“Often throughout a wildland fire season dispatch centers need to operate seven-days/week, round-the-clock schedule to support wildland fire operations, which has proven difficult at current staffing levels,” the FS wrote in a briefing document about combining the two dispatch centers.

The FS described Billings as “A city with a broad base of socially and economically diverse systems including housing, schools, airport, healthcare, childcare, and family necessities associated with the cost of living…A fully staffed Billings Interagency Dispatch Center should also provide a better work-life balance for employees across the spectrum.”

The FS tentatively expects Billings Dispatch to be fully operational with the appropriate radio communications and additional duties on April 18, 2022. Field testing has been going on since March. The phone number to report a fire will be the main dispatch number, 406-896-2900.