Well, here we are again. I recognize that tree…
You may be asking yourselves, where are we exactly?
Allow me to explain.
In October of 2021 I published a piece called Wildland Fire’s Great Exodus, which if you missed it, you’re welcome to read by clicking here.
The quick synopsis however, is this; federally employed wildland firefighters (WFFs) have been leaving the profession at an accelerated rate, which should be of concern to everyone -firefighters and civilians alike- due to the long-term ramifications of losing experienced firefighters en masse. In The Great Exodus, I did my best to provide context about why this was occurring, because as with all things, it’s important to understand “the why” if there’s any hope of fixing something. Unfortunately, the laundry list of significant issues needing to be addressed with urgency is too long for me to provide in this synopsis, but some of those issues can be referenced here, here, and here or by reading The Great Exodus.
Okay so flash forward to today, August 16th, 2023, nearly two years later. Herculean efforts have been made by an army of volunteers in organizations like Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, as well as by union representatives, and many internal employees since The Great Exodus was published (and well before that, we are simply using The Great Exodus as a mark in time) to fight for the needs of wildland firefighters. Champions for change have been giving up their free time, expending a lot of effort and energy, and legitimately exhausting themselves in a desperate pursuit of much-needed reforms. There is so much passion behind rectifying the issues at hand that some firefighters have actually resigned from their positions only to turn around and dedicate themselves to firefighter advocacy; that’s no small sacrifice. How many other professions see people quit what they love in order to make things better for those who remain? Not many.
Through these collective efforts many briefing papers have been drafted, press releases have gone out, interviews have taken place, campaigns have flooded social media, articles have been written, committees have been created, research projects, studies, and surveys have been started and completed, and countless interactions with legislators have taken place. So, what became of all that diligent effort over the past couple of years?
The Good News
Since the fall of 2021, federal wildland firefighters have seen progress in these areas:
- Work-to-Rest guidelines for most federal agencies have been altered to provide three days off after a 14-day fire assignment rather than the previous standard of two days off.[i]
- Wildland firefighters are now being taken into consideration for “presumptive illness” as it relates to many different types of cancers.[ii] It’s difficult to believe that a workforce that doesn’t use any sort of airway protection measures while engaging in firefighting -and with such high frequency- was not given this consideration until so recently, but that’s the reality of the situation.
- The Office of Worker’s Compensation (OWCP) has developed a special claims unit [iii] to process the injury claims of wildland firefighters. Hopefully, this new implementation will keep firefighters from experiencing denied claims and crippling medical bills for physical and mental injuries that occurred on the job; a circumstance that occurs far too often.
- The “First Responder FAIR Retire Act”[i] was passed and became law. This new law shields wildland firefighters from having their firefighter retirement taken when they are injured on the job. Previous to this act if a firefighter were seriously injured and could no longer perform their duties, they would lose their fire retirement and have to work an additional 10 years.
- Some land management agencies have added new fire positions in fire-prone areas, which could provide more career pathways as wildland firefighters progress through their careers.
- In April of 2023, the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer[iv] was officially opened to all firefighters; an advancement that now allows wildland firefighters to participate.
- A supplemental pay increase was enacted by way of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL)[v], which elevated federal wildland firefighters’ pay to a reasonable, although still underpaid wage[vi]. This long overdue pay raise effectively lifted firefighters’ base wages above the starting wage of many fast food restaurants, which just goes to show how low the entry-level wage was set for such a specialized skill set.[vii]
While short, this list of advancements is not to be discounted because the modifications listed above are making a profound impact and should each be considered a monumental victory. Especially when you think about the fact that the majority of reforms for federally employed wildland firefighters require an act of Congress (literally). Suddenly, this short list above seems more impressive. Even though these reforms are past due, this is still really good news. The downer is that it’s essentially only the first mile in an ultra-marathon.
The NOT-So-Good News
Alright, back to that familiar tree I mentioned in the beginning. Let me describe where we are.
First and foremost, we are in a race against time. Remember those bullet statements I just listed above? Well, each advancement that was noted still has many kinks to work out, the most dire of them being the pay increase. As it turns out, the supplemental pay increase wasn’t actually funded to be permanent. That’s right. The pay increase was a legislative tourniquet placed there to slow the hemorrhaging of even more firefighters leaving the ranks. The money that was allocated through the BIL had a sunset clause[viii], which stated that the money would be good until September 30th of 2026 or until it ran out, sort of like an oil change sticker; months vs. mileage.
Well, *spoiler alert* the money is running out September 30th, of 2023 and you may have already guessed it, but as of this writing new and permanent measures have not yet been decided upon to rectify the issue of firefighter pay.
I wouldn’t say that this is a small deal. I would categorize this as a big damn deal. It’s a big deal because the pay bump acted as recognition that an entire workforce was being severely underpaid for a job that could end their life on any given day. It said, “We see you. Even though many things[ix] are still broken and we’re asking way too much of all of you, here’s our olive branch.” The retraction of the pay increase that will occur on September 30th is equivalent to the federal government yanking that olive branch out of our hands, slapping us in the face with it, then setting it on fire. And you can bet that it won’t go unnoticed.
This may make it sound like wildland firefighters are all about the money. We aren’t. If that were true people would have stopped working in this profession back in the 1990s when the pay was still reasonable for the cost of living. This is a profession stuffed to the brim with hardworking, integrity-driven people who are stewards of the land and live simply. People who care deeply about the mission and the safety of their co-workers. The ethos of wildland firefighting; duty, respect, and integrity are what have kept so many mistreated firefighters from leaving the fireline; until the past few years that is. Those days are over… that ship has sailed. The ethos still stand strong but firefighters also need to pay their bills.
I can honestly say that I never thought I’d see the day when the wildland firefighting community would be hurting for numbers. When I started out in this profession hotshot crews had their pick of countless solid candidates. Superintendents wouldn’t even consider hiring a person who hadn’t called multiple times and/or physically shown up to make clear their interest in acquiring a position on the crew. It was incredibly rare for a person to be hired onto a hotshot crew who was brand new in fire. The expectation was for each crewmember to have a couple years of experience before even applying and smokejumpers had an even higher expectation for experience levels. Getting hired as a rookie smokejumper was a near impossibility. Candidates would apply several years in a row; some never getting selected. Smokejumper bases averaged several hundred applicants each year for just a few open positions and they would select their rookies like it was the NFL draft!
By contrast, smokejumper bases have been experiencing historically low numbers for their rookie classes because the qualified applicant pool has shrunk so rapidly. Similarly, hotshot crews as of recent have been caught scrambling to fill all their slots, forcing them to hire less experienced firefighters who oftentimes don’t have any idea what they’re getting themselves into. The physicality of the job, the pace of work, and the complex and dynamic environment are not for the faint of heart. Firefighters generally build up to this level of intensity by working on an engine crew or initial attack hand crew, but many fire districts nationwide are so strapped for people that engines are going unstaffed and crews are merging together.
This is a significant problem because fire resources are dispatched nationally (and internationally) to meet the need, and less people means that there are less fire engines, and/or crews available to respond. But there sure aren’t less fires to staff.
When the wildland firefighting community is having difficulty filling the most sought-after jobs in the profession you know it’s time to hit the panic button. So, this is me, hitting the panic button.
What’s the Problem?
What’s the problem? What isn’t the problem, might be an easier question to answer. As I mentioned earlier, the list really is too long to get into but there is one factor I’d like to focus on. In this profession, there has consistently been a sense of purpose associated with the job. People were happy doing meaningful work in the forest with a close-knit group of other motivated individuals. These things are still true today, but there is a painful reality awaiting anyone who decides to move up in rank.
Nearly all the joyful components of the job are stripped away and replaced by an overwhelming onslaught of administrative insanity the further you move up the ladder. Human resources issues, hiring and onboarding new employees, purchase card reconciliation, vehicle servicing documentation, equipment inventory, writing of prescribed burn plans, maintaining budgetary spreadsheets, hunting down appropriate codes and forms for specific tasks, menial mandatory online trainings, meetings, meetings, and more meetings.
Perhaps none of these things sound too taxing, but the systems that have been developed over time to do any one of the above-listed tasks have become so incredibly inefficient that it would be difficult to find a more time-consuming or maddening way to accomplish any one of them. Processes have been stacked on top of processes and the end result is a lot of undue stress for the person left to navigate these systems.
Jumping through all these hoops also means that the majority of people in fire management positions rarely spend time working in the field. How does it make any sense to have people with the most fire experience essentially stuck in their office, chained to their computers? And the worst part about it is that most of these tasks don’t require fire qualifications. They could be accomplished by an administrative assistant, freeing up fire managers to oh, I don’t know, manage fire? But instead, it has become commonplace for fire managers to have to repeatedly turn down fire assignment requests because they are drowning in administrative obligations.
If a team of efficiency experts was sent to observe how fire programs of land management agencies are directed to conduct their tasks or see what’s being asked of them, they would be beside themselves in disbelief. This brings me to my next point.
In the federal fire service, a wildland firefighter earns a twenty-year retirement. However, any firefighter can continue in the job until the mandatory retirement age of fifty-seven years old.[x] The mandatory retirement age used to be bittersweet for many firefighters, knowing they’d have to leave a job they love and a community of people they’ve come to deeply respect and consider family.
However, I’ve noticed in the past few years that when I ask a firefighter, “How many more years until you’re eligible?” The conversation takes on a sobering tone.
People have a true concern that they won’t be able to endure the stress levels they’re experiencing, or the financial strain long enough to collect their well-earned retirement, never mind working until age fifty-seven if they have an opportunity to leave sooner.
It’s absolutely astonishing how many people have resigned with only a handful of years left in order to start all over again by taking a job with a state or municipal fire department, or to completely shift professions altogether.
Federally employed wildland firefighters are choosing to start from scratch for better-balanced work schedules, less stress, and appropriate compensation for their work. But more than anything, they are leaving to forcibly prioritize their mental and physical health over the job and to salvage their strained relationships.
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves this one question.
Do I really think that wildfires are going to be less severe in the future?
If your answer to this question is no, then you’d be correct. It’s already been proven to us by wildfire smoke drifting in from several states away, and catastrophic community losses in places that are considered to be “low risk” that wildfire is everyone’s concern. So, wouldn’t it be nice if there were experienced professionals who could be relied upon to manage the complexities of wildfire at the edge of your community and across the landscape at large? I think so too.
The long and short of it is that wildland firefighters in the mid-to-upper levels of experience have been leaving in excess and if the issue of firefighter pay is not swiftly and permanently resolved the federal firefighting workforce across all land management agencies will see a loss of numbers too catastrophic to recover from.
But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say that the pay cut doesn’t end up being the catalyst for an uptick in the already concerning number of resignations. Realistically, many folks won’t have the luxury of quitting on September 30th, the day the entire federal fire organization is set to take a massive pay cut, even if they want to.
Whether or not someone quits or stays, it will have the same effect on morale. It will absolutely act as the great demoralization of a workforce. A workforce that is already feeling like they’ve been hung out to dry for far too long.
It begs the question, what is the government’s long-term plan here?
Wildfires are intensifying, and we’re going from fire seasons to wildfire being a year-round concern. Over the past few years, so much more has been asked of wildland firefighters, and simultaneously, numbers have been dwindling among the ranks, exacerbating the issue.
The retention numbers are on a downward spiral and will continue on that trajectory so long as the major issues go unresolved. All of this essentially means that not only is the federal government (the federal fire service is stretched over five different agencies) not preparing for what lies ahead, but they are essentially ensuring that the entire system will fall apart right when we will need it most.
Fire qualifications are earned over decades, not days, which means it will take decades to replace the massive amounts of experienced firefighters that have been walking out the door. That is, if newer firefighters don’t walk out the door too. This doesn’t even speak to the incredible financial hit the government takes each time a firefighter resigns just in training costs alone.
A solid infrastructure is necessary to safely and effectively manage fire on the landscape and right now we are on shaky ground. As wildfire drastically intensifies with each passing decade, the need to establish a National Fire Service is ever more apparent. Having fire programs strung out across five different land management agencies each with their own protocols, procedures, and priorities is an outdated model and it does not provide the level of fluid mobility that will be needed moving forward.
The volunteers and fire advocacy groups have done so much, but they don’t hold the power to instate the changes, that power lies somewhere else.
I’ll admit, I’m angry. I’m angry that this community of highly motivated, integrity-driven, hard-working professionals has been underpaid, underrepresented, and undervalued for so long. It’s painful to witness so many excellent firefighters leave the ranks because of blatant systemic issues that have gone unresolved due to a general apathy on the part of decision-makers. And it’s infuriating to know that the firefighters who haven’t left yet are subject to even more stress and are taking on a greater risk by having to operate with less capacity and lower experience levels among the ranks.
So, here’s what I recommend. I recommend that legislators fix it. Now. The problems have been identified and explained time and time again, we’re past that part. We have effectively reached the stage where it’s fair to say that inaction is completely irresponsible and reckless. Providing firefighters with adequate pay, benefits, and support services in order to stabilize the workforce that helps protect communities nationwide from burning to the ground is not a partisan issue. The pay cliff deadline of September 30th is hanging overhead like a guillotine; let’s not test its sharpness.
. . . .
A Call to Action
Thank you so much for reading this article and for your concern about these matters. Please take a few minutes of your time to share this article with your friends, family, and most importantly, your state representatives. Showing your support by contacting your representatives is a small action that can have a big impact.
Wildland Firefighters Need Your Help!
Watch this video, which shows the realities of the job and offers perspectives from the spouses of wildland firefighters.
About the Author- Brè Orcasitas is the author of The Evolving Nomad blog site and a wildland firefighter with 16+ years of field experience which includes working on engine and hotshot crews, as well as working as a helicopter rappeller, smokejumper, and field operations specialist with a current focus on firefighter advocacy, and training/preparing wildland firefighters for critical incidents.
[i] Red Book/Chapter 7 Safety and Risk Management: https://www.nifc.gov/sites/default/files/redbook-files/Chapter07.pdf
[ii] Presumptive Illness Info: https://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com/presumptive-coverage
[iii] OWCP Special claims unit info: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/owcp/FECA/FederalFirefighterclaims
[iv] Info about the National Fire Registry for cancer: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/owcp/FECA/FederalFirefighterclaims
[v] BIL Firefighter Pay Fact Sheet: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/21/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-new-pay-raises-supports-for-wildland-firefighter-workforce-from-bipartisan-infrastructure-law/
Supplemental Pay Info: https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/interagency-faqs.pdf
[vi] Pay Comparison with Cal Fire: https://www.grassrootswildlandfirefighters.com/pay-disparity-cal-fire
[vii]Entry level wages comparable to fast food industry: https://www.kgw.com/article/news/local/the-story/wildland-firefighter-salary/283-3fa6fd90-5f65-4315-a931-44a3e80349d4
[viii] Sunset clause associated with the pay increase: https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/interagency-faqs.pdf
[x] The mandatory retirement age is specific to firefighting. A person could transition to a federal, non-fire position and work longer.