LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, – More than 17 years of fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service has taken a toll on Brian Campbell.
He’s been homeless, once spending months sleeping in a van while fighting fires in the state of Idaho. He routinely is called to drive the engine he captains in Washington state across the country at a moment’s notice to support local crews.
During fire season he spends long stints in the forest without seeing his wife and young children.
Yet his salary is barely enough to get by on – $50,000 a year. Although he loves the job, he’s keeping his eyes open for other work.
“The seasons are longer, and we’re not being treated any better,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview – a view echoed by a half-dozen other current and former wildland firefighters.
As climate change strengthens, bringing hotter temperatures and worsening drought, the United States is entering what experts fear could be yet another devastating fire season.
But 20% of the federal government’s fulltime firefighting positions are currently vacant, according to Kelly Martin, president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Those vacancies, which Martin attributes to poor working conditions driving firefighters out of their jobs, are leaving communities around the United States more vulnerable, she said.
“With climate change, extreme heat, and drought, we’ve set ourselves up for something I’ve never seen in my career” – a depleting firefighting force at a time of worsening fires, said Martin, who retired in 2019 as chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.
“It’s too much for understaffed firefighters, with limited pay and benefits, to bear anymore,” she said.
Low pay is a big part of the problem, federal government officials admit, with President Biden calling the $13-an-hour minimum wage for federal firefighters “ridiculously low,” and promising to raise it to $15.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, admitted that “hiring and retaining firefighters has been complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages”.
But the agency is looking at options to “modernize” firefighter compensation, the spokesperson noted in emailed comments.
‘MONETIZED RISK TAKING’
Lawmakers from western states where the fires are fiercest have been eyeing broader changes to the federal government’s role in combating wildfires and say those on the front lines deserve proper safeguards.
“I do think we need to take a look at a range of issues on compensation, including what jobs need to be permanent jobs rather than temporary jobs and what we need to do for health care,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The federal firefighting force includes full-time firefighters as well as seasonal and temporary workers who are laid off during the off-season. Those firefighters are in turn supplemented by state and municipal fire crews and in some states jail and prison inmates who are paid as little as $2 a day to cut firebreaks.
For the bulk of federal firefighters, salaries tend to be lower than comparable work with other fire departments, Martin said – and only full-time workers have access to paid health benefits.
The way most firefighters make ends meet is by racking up significant hours of overtime, Martin said, setting up a perverse incentive to work too hard, and possibly get injured or burned out.
“If they pay more, firefighters wouldn’t need to be working overtime to get a livable wage,” she said. “In a perverted way we’ve monetized risk taking.”
One former federal firefighter in New Mexico, who recently left to join a municipal fire department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the low pay and lack of benefits forced him out of his job
“I worked for five years as a seasonal firefighter, starting at $13 an hour, and ending at $15. In the end it was just too stressful to make ends meet, ” he said, asking for anonymity to speak freely about working conditions.
Like Campbell, the firefighter also spent some seasons sleeping in his car, unable to afford rent.
Firefighting services in the United States have become increasingly in demand in recent years, experts say, as a combination of limited wildland management and climate change has increased the duration, extent and ferocity of the fire season.
A 2020 study published by researchers at Stanford University found that 50 million U.S. homes are now located in zones that are threatened by fire.
But authorities have not invested in the manpower needed to protect them, despite repeated warnings, said Donovan Lee, who spent 22 years as a federal firefighter, most recently as deputy forest fire management officer at Mendocino National Forest in California.
Before Lee quit last year he served on a task force studying staff retention issues in California. He circulated a memo warning that the Forest Service was “currently losing employees at an alarming rate to employers offering better compensation and overall quality of life.”
“Every year for the last five years it’s getting worse and worse,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “You make more money at McDonalds”
One of the issues Lee spotlighted in his memo was the classification of federal wildland firefighters as “forestry technicians” which means they don’t get the same specialized healthcare provision as city and state firefighters.
In an effort to boost firefighter recruitment, a bipartisan group of U.S. federal lawmakers earlier this year introduced legislation that would require the Office of Personnel Management to reclassify the position from technician to “wildland firefighter.”
The year after Lee circulated his memo, in 2019, the United States experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, with firefighters stretched so thin they, unusually, had to abandon some residential areas to fire.
This year, Washington state – hit by drought and record heat – has already seen a 56% increase in fires compared to the same point last year.
Firefighting units, meanwhile, are still experiencing dramatic attrition.
One hotshot firefighter – the term for a member of an elite firefighting crew – described seeing 16 members of his 20-person team leave over the past three years.
“All of us are concerned about the breakdown of our bodies from carrying 80 pounds and a chainsaw all day,” he said. “After a while the glamour fades – and you realize: this is just another low-paying job.”