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Friday, May 17, 2024

Recruitment, Retention of Wildland Firefighters Critical as Pay for Dangerous Work Can Be on Par with Food-Service Jobs

The choking wildfire smoke from Canada that enveloped parts of the United States this week served as just one reminder to focus on recruitment and retention of wildland firefighters whose pay is sometimes less than food-service workers and who sometimes live out of their cars, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard Thursday.

Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) acknowledged the poor air quality in the nation’s capital from blazes in Ontario and Quebec, noting that the Government Accountability Office “recently reported that smoke from U.S. wildfires now makes up 30 percent of the United States’ emissions particulates and things aren’t improving – in fact, in the last two decades the top four largest wildfires in human history have occurred.”

“In the U.S. more than half of the most destructive wildfires in our history have occurred since 2018,” he added. “Also, the acres burned annually have doubled in the past 30 years and are forecast to double again in the next 30 years.”

Manchin said that while “agency leaders have talked about correcting this course for some time, it unfortunately seems that with each passing year we continue to slip further behind.”

Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted that while “wildfires in Canada have ushered in smoke and poor air quality right here in Washington, D.C., this morning, this is what we have been experiencing far too frequently in Wyoming and throughout the West – and it is a sobering reminder that we must manage our forests to make them more resilient to catastrophic fires.”

“In recent years our western states have endured wildfires of unprecedented scale and destructiveness,” Barrasso said. “These fires ravaged forests, destroyed communities and upended lives and livelihoods. On average, roughly 8 million acres burned each year between 2017 and 2022, and that’s more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s. Western states are again bracing for what will likely be another devastating wildfire season this summer.”

“As fire seasons have become longer and more destructive fire suppression costs have increased dramatically over the last five years – suppression costs average $2.86 billion a year; in 2021, agencies spent a record over $4 billion in suppression activities,” he added.

Interior Department Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeffrey Rupert told senators that “the climate continues to play an oversized role in the extreme fire weather we’re experiencing across the nation and across the continent – a drier and hotter climate results in low fuel moisture and frequently leads to extreme conditions that produce these large and intense wildfires and mega fires.”

Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, the Great Lakes and the northeast are predicted to have “above-normal significant wildland fire potential over the next four months.”

Federal funding is “being used collaboratively with our partners to increase the pace and scale of fuels management treatments to rehabilitate lands damaged by wildfires, fund wildland-fire related research and to increase wildland firefighter pay,” Rupert said. In 2022, Interior “accomplished 1.9 million acres of priority reduction treatments, which was a 20 percent increase over ’21, and this year our goal is to treat 2.1 million acres.”

Longer and more intense fire years have “increased the demand and pressure on our workforce and it’s widely recognized that a new model is needed to address wildland firefighter recruitment and retention and provide better pay, more career stability, better upward mobility and much better work-life balance,” Rupert said.

The administration has proposed legislation to establish a new special base pay rate for firefighters and create a new premium pay category, he said, and their budget proposal includes funding to hire additional Interior and tribal firefighters.

More than 14,000 Forest Service firefighters received a temporary pay increase through funding provided by the Infrastructure Investment and JOBS Act signed into law in 2021, but that will be spent by the end of this September unless Congress intervenes.

“Without the additional funding and reforms they’re facing a pay cliff as the bill funding is estimated to run out at the end of this fiscal year,” Rupert stressed. “That could have a devastating effect on not only our firefighter morale but certainly our ability to recruit and retain firefighters.”

Interior is “working closely with the Forest Service to provide much-needed mental health support as well,” because “we know that mental health is affecting firefighters.”

Cardell Johnson, director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, said that barriers identified in the watchdog’s November 2022 report include low pay, remote or expensive duty stations, poor work-life balance, and career advancement challenges, “among others.”

“Low pay was cited as the top barrier despite federal actions to increase firefighter pay. Low pay impacts recruitment and retention because other industries such as food service offer equal or better pay for less dangerous work,” Johnson testified. “Our analysis identified three concerns with some of the recent federal pay actions: the first concern being pay does not reflect the hazardous physical and mental demands of the job; second, that pay may not be competitive with non-federal entities; and the third concern being that appropriated funds supporting recent base salary increases will likely run out this fiscal year.”

On the concern of remote or expensive duty stations, “it has been reported that some firefighters are living out of their cars because they cannot afford housing,” he added. “Duty stations that are more remote may not always provide easy access to basic services such as grocery stores or even broadband coverage, which helps firefighters stay connected with their families while they’re away.”

Agency officials and stakeholder groups told GAO that raising pay as well as giving further consideration to incentives “could mitigate this barrier,” Johnson said. “Low pay and expensive duty stations are also poor drivers of work-life balance; this is another barrier cited by nearly all of the stakeholders we’ve met with. Poor work-life balance impacts retention because it drives firefighters to take a break from service or leave the workforce entirely, and if that happens agencies lose valuable firefighting knowledge and experience.”

Some stakeholders told GAO that federal agencies would “be better positioned to recruit former firefighters back to service if they were eligible to return to the special retirement system available to firefighters who work more than three years in certain positions,” Johnson noted. “However, eligibility for that special retirement system is governed by statutes so any changes to that eligibility would need to be made by Congress.”

“Career advancement challenges pose another barrier to hiring and retaining firefighters. Without career advancement opportunities, firefighters may find it difficult to maximize their career earning potential,” he continued. “But some progress is being made in addressing this barrier – agencies worked with OPM to develop a new occupational series aimed at providing a clearer path for firefighters. However, implementation of this is ongoing and it really is too early to determine the outcomes.”

U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief of State, Private, and Tribal Forestry Jaelith Hall-Rivera told senators that “as we approach the busiest part of the 2023 fire year the Forest Service aspires to hire 11,300 wildland firefighters nationwide; as of May 30 we have hired 10,068 firefighters or about 89 percent of our goal.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic we will reach our hiring goals,” she added. “We know that that’s still not enough… The only way that we’re going to attract people to this challenging and hazardous work is to pay them fairly. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities.”

The administration’s fiscal year 2024 budget request seeks a permanent base pay increase for all firefighters, an increase of $10 million to enhance support for firefighters’ mental and physical health, and a $50 million investment in housing, Hall-Rivera said. “We recognize that addressing the housing crisis must happen now as it impacts our ability to recruit and retain our workforce,” she emphasized. “Together, these efforts would help address longstanding recruitment and retention challenges; these investments totaling $569 million for the Forest Service will help us ensure we can continue meeting evolving mission demands as both frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfires are expected to increase.”

Long term, the fire service, stakeholders, and partners must address “what has become a new normal – bigger and more destructive wildfires that are extremely costly and challenging to suppress.”

“The growing wildfire crisis created the need for new land-management strategy and we are in the second year of carrying out our 10-year wildfire crisis strategy in the Forest Service,” Hall-Rivera said. “The strategy aims to increase science-based fuels treatment by up to four times previous levels, calling for up to 20 million acres treated in the national forest system over the coming decade and working with partners for 30 million additional acres treated in the next decade.”

Wyoming State Forestry Division Interim State Forester Kelly Norris told senators that “we need to work together to find solutions that meet the needs of our wildland fire community – there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution as the need will have to be addressed at all levels.”

“There is an urgent need for active forest management – last year’s Fish Creek Fire located in the Black Hills was stopped in a fuel-break treatment area,” she said. “The fuel break saved multiple homes while helping bring the fire down in intensity and gave our firefighters the opportunity to control the wildfire safely and effectively.”

“State agencies must be a part of the solution to getting more management done on the ground with our federal forests,” Norris added.

Johnson recognized that land-management agencies “are actively addressing the barriers identified” to ensuring a fire service that is ready for intense wildland blazes in the watchdog’s November 2022 report.

“The barriers are complex and interrelated and they require long-term solutions that may need support from Congress: addressing temporary pay actions before they expire and changing retirement eligibility requirements to make it easy for firefighters to return to work without being penalized for breaking service may go a long way to support firefighters who risked their lives to protect our communities – such as from the smoke that we’re experiencing today – as well as our critical infrastructure and natural resources,” he said.

author avatar
Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.
Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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