A video response to Representative Tom McClintock’s description of wildland firefighters as “unskilled labor”

 fire firefighters wildland wildfire
Still image from the Jack Jones “Unskilled Labor” documentary

When U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock of California called wildland firefighters “unskilled labor”earlier this month it provoked strong responses from the highly trained, professional, tactical athletes who put their bodies on the fireline to protect our citizens and forests.

One of those reacting was Jack Jones who was motivated by the criticism to put together the video he shot last year while serving as a highly skilled firefighter on the Idaho-based Sawtooth Hotshots. The resulting 26-minute documentary is titled, “Unskilled Labor” A Season with the Hotshots.

 fire firefighters wildland wildfire
Still image from the Jack Jones “Unskilled Labor” documentary

The video is the best I have seen that captures what it is like to work with 20 other highly skilled professional firefighters over the course of a fire season — digging fireline, mopping up, firing out, and hiking impossibly steep terrain while carrying heavy loads. Mr. Jones narrates as we see excellent photography of scenes that most people can’t even imagine. It brought me back to the five seasons I spent on Southern California hotshot crews.

Mr. Jones addresses thoroughly the ridiculous comment by Representative McClintock about “unskilled labor”.

The viewer may be left with the conclusion that if the trained and experienced firefighters on Hotshot crews were not skilled, instead of returning home after a fire assignment they could be in a cemetery.

In case you missed the Congressman calling firefighters “unskilled labor”

A video on the topic has received nearly 130,000 views

Smokejumper Burro Fire
Smokejumper landing near the Burro Fire in Colorado on the San Juan National Forest.

A United States Congressman calling wildland firefighters “unskilled labor” is something that many of us current and former firefighters will remember for a long time.

The comment appeared July 2 in an article in the Union Democrat that included an interview with U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, whose Congressional District Four includes the Mother Lode area of California and all of the Stanislaus National Forest. As an example of how the U.S. Forest Service is having difficulty in hiring and retaining wildland firefighters, the article quoted Traci Allen, the acting public affairs officer for the Stanislaus National Forest, as saying their fire staffing was 25% short at that time.

When asked about the issue, Rep. McClintock said, “enhanced unemployment benefits are causing a severe labor shortage in entry-level positions.”

He went on to say,“Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labor.”

Even the basic newly hired wildland firefighter immediately receives 40 to 80 hours of training. If they continue beyond the first year, the formal and on the job training they receive over the rest of their career builds up. To work in any of the dozens of positions on fires recognized by the Incident Command System above the level of Type 2 Firefighter requires additional structured courses and proving your skills which are documented in writing in Task Books at every step. It can take 10 to 20 years to acquire the skills, knowledge, and abilities to serve in the higher level jobs on complex incidents.

An “unskilled laborer” attempting to serve as Division Supervisor or Operations Section Chief, for example, would most certainly get scores of their subordinates killed.

An Illinois-based YouTube vlogger who posts videos on his “Fire Department Chronicles” channel weighed in with strong opinions on the issue in a video that has received nearly 130,000 views.