LOS ANGELES — Despite the promise of increased pay and benefits, federal wildland firefighters are preparing to do more with less as the threat of another dangerous fire season looms over much of the country.
Early season wildfires are already breaking out in the driest states, including New Mexico, where two people died last week in the McBride Fire, which has consumed more than 6,000 acres and was 84 percent contained Wednesday.
In Arizona, two wildfires have scorched nearly 20,000 acres this week, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and find shelter for pets and large animals.
With below-average snow cover and reservoirs in some places reaching critically low levels, concerns are mounting that the Western drought will only intensify, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its most recent monthly climate report.
To meet the challenge, the U.S. Forest Service set a goal of hiring 11,300 firefighters for the coming fire season, which traditionally covers six months starting in May, up from 10,000 in previous years.
“We are aggressively working to hire and create incentives for applicants for the 2022 fire year, and the efforts are ongoing,” said Jonathan Groveman, a spokesperson for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region.
But firefighters and their advocates say the Forest Service is unlikely to meet its goal as experienced employees resign and newcomers seek employment with state and municipal agencies that offer better pay and benefits.
According to the union that represents federal firefighters, hundreds of positions remain vacant in national forests across the country, some of them on fire engine crews in California, which has experienced some of the country’s worst wildfires in recent years even as federal firefighter staffing numbers have steadily declined.
“It’s super frustrating,” said Riva Duncan, a former Forest Service officer who is the executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which advocates for federal fire personnel. “I’m struggling to understand the rationale for the [Forest Service’s] continued rosy rhetoric instead of admitting things are pretty dire.”
At the McBride Fire, some crews were understaffed and forced to get by with minimal resources, including working 40-hour shifts, said a New Mexico-based Hotshot who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job.
In November, the Forest Service set the goal of staffing experienced Hotshot crews with 20 to 25 people, but at the McBride Fire, which has been burning since April 12, crews were down to just 18 or fewer members, the firefighter said.
“It changes the dynamic and how much we’re capable of doing and how much responsibility is being put on people’s shoulders,” the firefighter said. “It forces everybody to step up to a level of responsibility they may never have experienced before.”
Last year, President Joe Biden promised to increase the base pay for entry-level federal wildland firefighters from $13 an hour to $15. The boost was the most significant and immediate of an array of steps the White House announced to improve recruitment and retention of firefighters while creating new avenues for the public to prepare for and respond to wildfires.
In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $5.1 billion over the next five years to help bolster the federal response to the increasingly complex fire environment, including investments in preparedness, fuels management, post-fire restoration and fire science.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has promised to beef up numbers for its Hotshot teams to allow for more rest between incidents, and it has said it will streamline the process to convert more seasonal employees into permanent positions.
“Initial indications are that the Forest Service has made significant progress towards creating a more permanent firefighting workforce,” said Groveman, the Forest Service spokesperson. “For the first time, we anticipate that we will process more permanent hires than temporary hires this year.”
Federal firefighters say that despite the promise of increased resources, including the pay increase, which won’t go into effect until the summer at the earliest, the fixes to an already overwhelmed Forest Service aren’t sufficient to improve retention as front-line workers continue to quit.
Chris Mariano spent 10 years in the agency, starting out as a seasonal forestry technician and making his way up to squad boss for the elite Truckee Interagency Hotshot Crew in Northern California. He resigned this month, issuing a two-page letter highlighting his commitment to firefighting and his deep disappointment with the Forest Service.
“I wanted nothing more than to be a hotshot, to be a leader, to care for the land and to be of service,” he wrote. “While the sense of purpose and camaraderie remain, I now feel [it is] hypocritical to recruit or encourage crew members to work for an Agency that is failing to support its fire management programs and thus the public.”
When Mariano joined the Forest Service a decade ago, suppressing wildfires was just part of the mission, he said. Crews enjoyed days off between assignments — enough time to regroup, rest and prepare for another wildfire.
But as fires intensified, crews became steadily overworked, and the agency was cornered into a “reactive” role focused primarily on suppressing wildfires rather than managing public lands.
“There’s a lot of people holding on for the change,” Mariano said. But for him, “it was time to step away.”
Duncan of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters said losing experienced people like Mariano is perhaps the biggest challenge for the Forest Service.
“Those are the people we can’t readily replace,” she said. “That’s what’s really hurting the agency.”