British Columbia starts season with most applicants in a decade

More than 2,000 applicants wanted to be a part of the British Columbia Wildfire Service in 2024, the highest number of applicants the service has seen in the past decade. The agency told WildfireToday that the application boost was linked to feedback received from the Expert Task Force on Emergencies established last October by BC Premier David Eby after the province’s historic 2023 wildfire season. The task force issued 31 recommendations, some of which were enacted swiftly ahead of the 2024 wildfire season.

Fire management made numerous enhancements to the Service’s wildland firefighter recruitment and hiring process as a result of the recommendations. Upgrades included expanding First Nations boot camps, extending the hiring period for new recruits, and encouraging applicants to indicate their work location preference.

The Service directly attributed the improvements to their having a full staff of 162 Initial Attack Crews and 30 Unit Crews in 2024, compared with the 149 Initial Attack Crews and 30 Unit Crews in 2023. Approximately 1,300  fire crew positions are employed directly with the Service, including an additional 500 permanent staff and 300 seasonal positions; 250 new recruits were invited by the Service from its New Recruit Boot Camps and First Nations Boot Camps this spring. The provincial 2024 budget provided $38 million to support stable, year-round staffing, including fire crew leaders and frontline staff who work in structure protection, prevention, risk reduction, and wildfire land-based recovery.

“People living in First Nations, along with rural and remote communities bear a disproportionate impact from the rising threat of wildfires,” said Wayne Schnitzler, task force member and executive director of First Nations’ Emergency Services Society. “I’m pleased to see the Province is boosting recruitment initiatives, including expanding First Nations boot camps as recommended by the Premier’s expert task force on emergencies. These initiatives break down barriers and pave the way for increased participation of Indigenous peoples as wildland firefighters.”

Apart from hiring, the Service said it will continue to implement numerous task force recommendations through 2024, including:

        • Launching a wildfire training and education center at Thompson Rivers University
        • Increasing new technology use to predict wildfire movement and growth
        • Increasing community evacuee support funding
        • Increasing the volunteer pool to support evacuees
        • Boosting wildland firefighting fleet and equipment
        • Enhancing wildfire recruitment tactics

BC Wildfire Service airtankers, meanwhile, are conducting practice flights from Kamloops and Penticton airports in the afternoons. The BCWS said airtankers out of Kamloops are flying the east side of Adams Lake, and  the Penticton aircraft will conduct practice about 40 nautical miles east of Penticton. reported that BCWS noted the exact location and timing of tanker practices are subject to change depending on weather and other conditions; the practices don’t involve active fire. After six days with no flying activity, practices are run to make sure aviation teams are ready to respond. “It is important for air attack officers and pilots to practice, as it allows them to remain proficient and prepared to respond to active wildfires,” BCWS said. “Practices also ensure the aircraft are mechanically sound and ready to respond.”

Record-breaking fires, COVID-19, and impacts on firefighters

It’s been four years since a near-perfect storm hit the U.S. West. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, just months before the worst wildfire season in recorded history.

The interactions between wildfire and COVID-19 were large and sweeping, research in the years since has shown. The 2020 season left lasting impacts on the wildland firefighting force, both systemically and personally.

Wildland firefighters are at high risk for both COVID-19 infection and, when infected, experiencing severe illness from the virus, research published in the National Library of Medicine and Science academic journals found. Researchers in one study examined potential health and workforce capacity impacts by modeling the movement of suppression resources across the country over a season and the corresponding potential for disease spread and cascading outbreaks across wildfire incidents.

inbound and outbound firefighters on a Montana fire

The increased risk stems primarily from firefighters’ exposure to wildfire smoke, limited access to hygiene supplies, and constantly being physically near other wildland firefighters and the public.

IHC superintendents were surveyed by USFS researchers a year after the fires burned. At the beginning of the pandemic, the agency launched a wide range of new practices for hotshot crews to limit the spread of COVID-19 while also, it was hoped, improving operational efficiency. New practices included changes in pre-fire preparation, using virtual paperwork and briefings, and reformatting traditional fire camps to a more widespread layout. The USFS also created a COVID-19 Incident Risk Assessment Tool for fire managers; it measured numerous factors including camp size, mitigation techniques, and number of positive cases to estimate how at-risk each crew was.

The researchers wanted to know if superintendents were interested in maintaining any of those practices in daily hotshot crew use in the years after 2020, regardless of COVID-19. The survey found that the majority of practices contributed positively to operational efficiency in addition to crewmember safety and well-being. Most respondents preferred the ease of virtual vs. in-person paperwork and briefings, they liked having crews spike on or near the line with the full-scale ICP camp away from the fire, and they felt better physically and mentally as a result of these changes.

Wildland firefighter well-being — and proper pay — are still a major focus for the USFS post-2020 as retention becomes an increasingly worrying issue. Research conducted this year on retention found that highly skilled wildland firefighters with a high number of assigned days, payment of additional annual earnings, and gained experience throughout the firefighter’s career all had positive effects on retention. Local wages of alternative occupations in a firefighter’s local area had no significant effect on retention.

The future of wildland firefighter physical health may also see improvements thanks to technological developments stemming from COVID-19. Respiratory illnesses like coronavirus, and other long-term health risks firefighters face such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, may be seen in firefighters less and less as mobile respirators proceed further in development.

California fitted wildland firefighters with a mobile respirator prototype last October while they dug firelines or cut down trees with chainsaws. The results were mixed.

“Plenty broke. Hoses popped out of sockets. Straps snapped. Masks slid down sweating faces. Filters became dislodged,” Julie Johnson wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

During this event, firefighters from Cal Fire, L.A. County and the USFS took turns trying out several types of mask. They hiked down a slope and then back up, then pulled off their masks, sweating and breathing hard in triple-digit temps. Each round took only about ten minutes.

Firefighters shared their impressions with observers: Felt like a muzzle. Was too bulky. Too tight. It slipped off my face once I began to sweat.

Hearing one of her colleagues say “it’s better than nothing,” Cal Fire’s Sol Espinoza spoke up. “I’d rather take nothing,” she said.

The test is one of many completed or planned throughout the country as the fire agencies look to lower firefighter mortality from diseases increasingly found to be worsened through wildfire smoke inhalation. Experts have hedged their bets on technology frequently used to keep COVID-19 patients hospitalized with severe cases alive. Adaptations in the technology are still under development as researchers figure out which version might be best suited to meet the dynamic needs of firefighters in the field.

Espinoza, a firefighter with Cal Fire in San Bernardino. Espinoza said she could never imagine wearing a constrictive device that makes it harder to breathe.

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.

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.

Dozens of lawmakers sign letter supporting an increase in pay for federal firefighters

In 2021 40% of the requests for hand crews and 29% of the requests for engines were unfilled

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

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of  Agriculture and the Interior.

It noted that years of low pay and other issues “have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce.” Last year 1,858 (40 percent) of the orders for hand crews were unfilled, and 1,853 (29 percent) of orders for engines were unfilled. In addition, the number of cancelled orders were 32 percent of crew orders and 22 percent of engine orders. There can be multiple reasons why orders are cancelled, but they can include the order sat unfilled and the requesting unit gave up, or finally the need no longer existed. The number of orders actually filled in 2021 were 27 percent for crews and 49 percent for engines.

“In one state, the U.S. Forest Service had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such shortages exist throughout the West heading into the 2022 fire season, with officials estimating staffing will be below 75% in some regions. This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable. ”

The lawmakers urged the OPM to use their authority for establishing special pay rates when staffing problems are caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, remoteness of the location involved, or the undesirability of the working conditions.

One of the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year required the two Departments and the OPM to establish a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series. The lawmakers warned yesterday that “a new series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins.”

The letter linked the lack of “portal-to-portal” pay with recruitment and retention difficulties:

“Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.”

“The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service,” the letter from the 28 Senators and Representatives said. “This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.”