You may have noticed that wildland firefighters (WFFs) have been in the news lately, which is mostly to do with the fact that many are resigning from their positions due to low wages among other things. Although this comes at a time when many professions nationwide are advocating for higher wages, the Great Exodus that is occurring amongst the ranks of the wildland firefighting population is on a catastrophic trajectory because of what it will mean for wildfire response moving into the future.
An Introduction to Wildland Firefighting
In the beginning, wildfire was fought by anyone willing and able to run to the edge of the forest to try and stop it before it engulfed their town, but it’s come quite a long way since the early 1900s. This profession can make an easy parallel in many ways to active-duty military; operating within a chain-of-command and requiring high levels of physical fitness firefighters hike, parachute, and rappel into chaotic and dangerous job sites, while spending extended periods of time away from their home and families.
The work itself is mostly miserable; masochistic even. From early Spring to late Fall firefighters out West hand their lives over to the “fire season”. While away on their 14-21 day assignments firefighters work 16-hour shifts hiking in rugged terrain, digging in the dirt and running chainsaws while carrying heavy packs and regularly ingesting smoke only to go home for 2 days of R+R[i] (rest and recovery) before reporting back to their crews to repeat the same cycle for upwards of 6-8 months on average. “R+R days” afford just enough time to do laundry, re-pack gear and make a brief appearance with family and friends before returning to the field.
Most firefighters will accrue 800-1,200 hours of overtime every fire season, which basically equates to “If you’re awake, you’re working.” All this time invested doesn’t even speak to the Eastern fire season, taking place the other half of the year.
Of course, there’s something to love about wildland firefighting, otherwise people wouldn’t dedicate their lives to it. The wildland fire community has always been able to recruit and retain firefighters by instilling the core values of Duty, Respect, and Integrity. And also, by placing high value on the developed camaraderie amongst crewmembers. Wildland firefighters don’t shy away from hard work, quite the opposite really; firefighters take a certain amount of pride in the fact that not just anyone can do this job. Most who can endure the physicality and unconventional lifestyle rarely walk away from it, which makes the current situation so concerning. Federally employed wildland firefighters with 10-20 years of service are making the hard decision to transition out of wildfire in droves and it isn’t because they’ve lost passion for the job. It’s because the job is breaking their spirit, their families, their hearts, and their bank accounts.
Breaking their Spirit
As wildfire has evolved over time the wildland firefighting organizational structure has not. This essentially means, doing exponentially more with less. Fire managers are completely overtasked, overstressed, overburdened, and left wanting for the basics like administrative assistants and full staffing so they can actually focus on managing their local fire programs.
Meanwhile, further down the ranks, firefighters on the ground are dealing with increasingly volatile and unpredictable fire behavior and for much longer each passing year.
There is certainly no back-up for those on the fireline who become completely exhausted and rundown from working long shifts and sleeping in the dirt before rising to do it all over again.
The physical toll that firefighting takes on the body very obviously has long-lasting and often untold effects.
Even on what should be days-off, fire managers act as Duty Officers (a 24-hour responsibility which is almost entirely) constantly responding to calls, emails, and texts, while similarly fire crews can be required to be on call[ii] to respond within 2-hours (also an unpaid expectation[iii]). Simply put, there is no “off switch” for firefighters until Mother Nature allows it to be so.
Breaking their Families
Absence makes the heart grow fonder until it doesn’t. Having a partner/spouse in wildfire essentially means being alone for more than half the year, every year. For those who have a family, the burden of being a single parent for the majority of each passing year can turn from frustration into resentment, especially if you’re stuck living at a remote duty station. With firefighters averaging 4 days at home and “off” per month (not in succession) for 6-8 months each year, you can imagine the strain it creates due to a lack of presence or reliability.
When children are involved, the partner/spouse’s career is adversely affected due to a lack of accessible and/or affordable childcare during the summer months. Not surprisingly, the divorce rate within the wildland firefighting community is high due to such a relentless and unbalanced work schedule.
Building a life with someone who leaves for work in the morning that may come home that evening, or 14-21 days from then, or never again, is not an easy circumstance to endure. For fire families the reality is that the job comes before everything else; day in and day out, year after year.
Breaking their Hearts
This job kills people. There has not been a single year to date which hasn’t resulted in at least one firefighter fatality during the fire season.[iv] On average, approximately 17 wildland firefighters are killed every year in the line of duty.[v] Beyond that, many more sustain catastrophic injuries while working on wildfires resulting in either serious rehabilitation or permanent disability. When either of these two occurrences happen the hoops that must be jumped through for the most basic care and dismal benefits is an absolute disgrace.
To be a member of the wildfire community means that you’re part of the fire family. It also means that people you know and care about will die and you might be standing right there trying to save them when it happens. Every single shift on a wildfire has the potential to end someone’s life, including your own. The longer anyone stays in this profession, the more people they must survive.
As firefighters move through their careers these traumatic instances pile up leaving many to battle anxiety, depression, and PTSD; pushing them toward heavy drinking, substance abuse, or worse. Unfortunately, the rates of suicide are extremely high in the wildfire community.[vi] Due to a lack of education about the effects of trauma and how to cope with it, many firefighters resign due to experiencing crippling triggers and severe panic attacks associated with previous traumatic incidents on the fireline.[vii]
The most offensive aspect regarding the high rate of line of duty deaths is that federal wildland firefighters are not even classified as “Wildland Firefighters,” but instead “Forestry Technicians,” which begs the question; how many “Forestry Technicians” must die in the line of duty each year before rightly being regarded as “Wildland Firefighters?”
Breaking their Bank Accounts
The above table clearly shows that wildland firefighters have the highest fatality rate for line of duty deaths when compared with similarly dangerous professions in relation to workforce population, while the table below shows base wages associated with comparable professions.
Imagine this Scenario: You’re working a standard 8-hour shift at your office and just as you are about to leave for the day your supervisor requests that you work an additional 8-hours. After working 16-hours you attempt to go home yet again only to have your supervisor say, “you’ll be needed at work first thing in the morning and your commute is too far so you’ll have to sleep under your desk.” For the 8-hours that you’re sleeping uncomfortably under your desk, away from your home and family, you are not getting paid. Welcome to the world of federally employed wildland firefighters.
Fire organizations like Cal Fire are paid 24-hours, “portal-to-portal” while on assignment, and yet federally employed Wildland Firefighters (the majority of WFFs nationally) are only paid up to 16-hours per day.[xx] Beyond the low wages, federal wildland firefighters are severely lacking in any sort of resource programs or allowances for assistance with housing, childcare expenses, uniforms, mental health programs, or relocation allowances like a military servicemember would, for example.[xxi] Seasonal firefighters (a sizable portion of the workforce) don’t even receive year-round healthcare or retirement benefits.
In the same vein, when it comes to on the job injuries the current worker’s compensation system oftentimes denies firefighter claims leaving them to either spend time in lengthy appeals processes, use personal insurance, or pay out of pocket for expensive procedures in order to get healed and get back to work. Even worse still, there have been countless instances where severely injured firefighters have been flown via life flight helicopter from the field only to later be presented with bills from the hospital charging them for all the incurred costs. By the time paperwork gets straightened out and the confusion settles it usually costs the firefighter an incredible amount of undue stress when already trying to recover from severe injuries. Then further damage comes to the firefighter when they learn that their credit is completely ruined from the prolonged debt dispute. [xxii] All this for being injured in the line of duty.
The reality is that wildland firefighters have been pushed well beyond their breaking point for far too long. For decades they have operated within a dysfunctional system and are completely worn-down from the endless stream of sacrifices and now they are walking away. To make the excruciating decision to leave their brothers and sisters on the fireline, to leave a career they love, for the sake of self-preservation or to save what’s left of their personal relationships is no small action and it is not going unnoticed within the fire community.
So, who will replace them? It may sound dramatic to say that these firefighters are irreplaceable, but here’s why that is a mostly true statement:
Experienced wildland firefighters understand the effects that fuel, topography and weather have on fire behavior and they strategize accordingly to keep people out of harm’s way. They can cut down hazardous burning trees with chainsaws, safely lead a crew of 20 people into a fully active fire, direct inbound aircraft over the radio to make water drops, manage the complexities of a burn out operation around a community, recognize and alert other firefighters when they are in a compromised situation, attach cargo to the bottom of an aircraft as it is hovering above them, rappel off the side of a helicopter, parachute out of a plane and into a fire, operate and troubleshoot engines and pumps, calculate friction loss, manifest helicopter flights, read maps and navigate terrain, use emergency protocols to extract injured firefighters, identify different fuel types and understand how fire will react in said fuel type. They can manage fires that are 5-500,000 acres in size, oversee budgets, reconcile spending purchases, and navigate mountains of paperwork. Experienced firefighters know what LCES, SA, AAR, IRPG, DBH, ICS, PPE, LAL, IAP, ERC, CTR, IMT, RH, POI, SEAT, VLAT, AGL, TFR, ICP, UTF, UTL, WUI, SOP, GACC, NIFC and ELT all stand for.
If you were to ask a rookie firefighter to fill their crew captain’s position or to develop a strategic plan to contain a complex fire, they’d be the first to tell you that they don’t have the training or experience to do it. Typically, it takes several years as a trainee to achieve firefighting qualifications and sometimes even longer to gain admittance to the necessary classes that are associated with those qualifications; there are no shortcuts.
It cannot be understated that replacing experienced wildland firefighters with rookies is not a viable option, retention is absolutely crucial for this profession and for public safety. Let me repeat that. Retention of experienced wildland firefighters is absolutely crucial for this profession and for public safety.
Retention is imperative; especially when factoring in the high percentage of firefighters who are due to retire in the next 5-10 years. And yet, there is already a severe shortage of middle leadership within the wildfire community because of the great exodus and it’s only going to get worse if things don’t change. This means that on wildfires nationwide firefighters are currently filling roles that they are unqualified for because there is no other option, while other positions are left “unable to fill”.
All this as we progress into a new era where people are much less willing to put their lives in jeopardy for meager pay merely because they feel a sense of duty. Not to mention that the applicant pool to recruit from has already been shrinking at a rapid rate due to less interest in jobs which require physicality; and wildfires don’t go out without boots on the ground.
These are but a few reasons why retention within the workforce is imperative but ultimately the ramifications of the great exodus can be distilled down to these two sobering realities:
1. The number of firefighter injuries and fatalities will begin to increase as a direct result of the lack of experience/knowledge in the workforce.
2. Firefighters will eventually end up having to decide which fires to staff and which to allow to burn due to a lack of qualified resources to staff them.
We are witnessing firefighters who are deeply invested and who love the work, leave the ranks which leaves one to wonder; how easy will it be to recruit new firefighters into a profession which systematically deters people rather than incentivizing them?
The Laundry List of Issues:
A major part of the problem is that wildland firefighters are a largely invisible workforce and so the issues plaguing them have been as well, but no longer. Although the issues are bountiful, here are the most concerning which require swift action if the intent is to keep federal wildland firefighters from continuing to leave the ranks.
- Increase wages to reflect the hazardous environment of the profession as well as the specialized skill sets required to do the work.
- Offer re-hire bonuses and incentives to wildland firefighters with middle management level (and higher) qualifications in order to re-stabilize the workforce.
- Adjust work-to-rest schedules in order to provide time for appropriate physical/mental recovery between fire assignments. (This might mean increasing crew sizes for rotating availability)
- Address the shameful lack of resources provided -by using military allowances as a template-[xxiii] in order to create sustainable situations for firefighters and their families, thereby increasing retention. This includes dual career firefighting couples trying to start families.
- Provide comprehensive trauma education and easily accessible mental health services.
- Immediately alter the current presumptive illness legislation for firefighters so that it includes wildland firefighters, finally addressing the long-term effects of the exposure[i] within the work environment.[ii]
- Issue additional Nomex clothing and provide safety protocols to lessen the potential for dermal transfer of toxins through the skin.[i]
- Classify Forestry Technicians as Wildland Firefighters.
- Pay fire managers for 24-hr duty officer responsibilities, pay firefighters when they are required to be “On-Call” for 2-hour response times.
- Create administrative assistant positions for all high-complexity fire programs.
- Immediately restore Transfer of Station (TOS) allowances.
- Establish a higher wage for wildland firefighters who are qualified EMT/Paramedics.
- Enhance the line of duty death benefits, bringing them to an appropriate level while also offering memorial services for contracted firefighting resources.
Correcting this list of critical concerns represents the immediate need, but the most logical long-term solution is to carve each fire program out from its respective land management agency and to create a stand-alone Federal Fire Service. The fragmentation and competing priorities of multiple land management agencies coupled with supervisors at the highest levels in the chain of command without fire experience and/or education, all create unnecessary complexities for firefighters on the ground.
By federal firefighters setting the foundation, it allows for the flow of change to continue through state, county, contractual, and volunteer entities as well. From there the federal fire service could begin developing a lasting infrastructure that is sorely needed such as regional fire hubs, using military bases as a model.
As wildfire seasons continue to intensify and extend further with each passing year, the only reasonable solution is to have a federal agency dedicated to appropriately managing fire on the landscape in order to restore forest health and help slow the ferocity of the mega fires this country has been experiencing as of late.
For a frame of reference of where things are, the Moonlight Fire in 2007[xxv] was considered large at 65,000 acres and cost $31 million dollars to contain it; whereas the Dixie fire[xxvi] is currently burning at approximately 960,000 acres with a price tag hovering around $592 million dollars and at its height, employed upwards of 6,550 firefighters[xxvii] to contain it.
What all this boils down to is that the toll this profession takes on firefighters and their families is too much, and it has been too much for far too long. Wildland Firefighters are done asking for decision makers to hear their pleas and have formally reached their breaking point. If the aim is to keep entire forests and communities from burning to the ground it’s well past time for the powers that be to act because firefighters have already begun taking action; one resignation letter at a time.
About the Author: Brè Orcasitas is the author of The Evolving Nomad blog site and a wildland firefighter with 16 years of experience including: Engine Crew, Hotshot Crew, Helicopter Rappeller, Smokejumper, and Field Operations Specialist.
[iv] Reference: “Wildland Fire Accidents and Fatalities by Year” Report
[xiii] 50,000 is a rough estimate based on reported employee numbers by federal agencies and contracted resources.
[xx] Extended Initial Attack can justify more than 16 consecutive hours of pay.