BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. wildfire managers are considering shifting to more full-time firefighting crews to deal with what has become a year-round wildfire season and making the jobs more attractive by increasing pay and benefits.
There’s a push in Congress to increase firefighter pay and convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to year-round workers, furthering a shift in their ranks over the past decade as fires have grown more severe.
It comes as fires raging in Western states parched by severe drought and record heat have burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,300 square kilometers) this year.
That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which ultimately saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned as well as more than 17,000 homes and other structures destroyed.
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that firefighters need more pay in recognition of the growing workload.
The year-round firefighters could also remove brush and other hazardous fuels when not battling wildfires. French said the Forest Service treats 3 million acres (4,700 square miles) annually, but to make progress would need to treat two to four times that much in the 193 million acres (301,500 square miles) it manages.
He called for a “paradigm shift” in forest management to address the impacts of climate change.
“We have a crisis,” French said while testifying on a infrastructure bill sponsored by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. “We must address it at the scale of the problem, and bring long term relief to our firefighters, our communities and our forests.”
The challenge has increased in recent decades as more homes were built outside cities and towns, forcing wildland firefighters to protect the structures.
President Joe Biden this week called for an increase in firefighter pay from $13 an hour.
“That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters,” he said.
Firefighters can often boost pay by working overtime, a regular occurrence on bad fire years.
The Forest Service and Department of Interior combined employ about 15,000 firefighters. Roughly 70% are full-time and 30% are seasonal. Those figures used to be reversed, said Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.
Increased pay and more full-time firefighters were included in infrastructure legislation sponsored by Manchin, the chair of the energy and natural resources committee and a key swing vote in the evenly divided Senate. He was among a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers who announced a deal Thursday with Biden on a pared-down version of the administration’s plan.
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, also in the group, said the package would contain money for addressing wildfires but was unclear whether raises were included. If not, Tester said raises would be addressed in next year’s federal budget.
“This is dangerous work, folks need to be paid for it. We’re going to need to hire people to do this work,” he said.
Still, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said they face a potential shortage of firefighters this year because the $13 starting wage isn’t enough.
“There’s not technically a shortage of firefighters because we always overprepare,” said Jessica Gardetto, a fire center spokeswoman with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and a former wildland firefighter. “But it’s a concern right now. We’re seeing people taking jobs at local businesses that pay the same or more than starting fire positions.”
She also said the length of time firefighters spend in the field has been increasing. That can be a problem for seasonal firefighters who are college students and need to get back to class.
“In the past we had fire seasons, now we have fire years,” she said.
Officials at the center on Tuesday raised the national preparedness level to 4 on a 1-5 scale, the second earliest dating back to 1990. The primary reason is the drought will likely make it harder to put out fires and strain firefighting resources.
“We don’t know what kind of support we’re going to be able to get from other agencies,” said Sharla Arledge, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands, which is responsible for protecting state and some federal land. “It’s a tinderbox out there.”
More than 90% of the U.S. West is in drought. Forecasters expect the drought will persist at least through September across most of the region.
The nation’s wildland firefighting system is a network of local, state and federal agencies, and in Idaho includes a unique program where ranchers are trained and given equipment to keep wildfires small until help arrives. The vast majority of wildfires are put out within days, but some grow to thousands of acres and draw hundreds firefighters.
Major blazes that raged in Oregon, California, Washington and other states in 2020 revealed how stretched thin the ranks of firefighters have become. By September, with more than 30,000 firefighters deployed, there were so many fires burning that hundreds of requests for help went unfulfilled as agencies scrambled to get enough firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.
Firefighters from across the U.S. and other countries including Canada and Israel were summoned to help fill the personnel shortage.
Idaho officials have struggled to retain state wildland firefighters who are sometimes poached by federal agencies after gaining on-the-ground experience. Starting pay for an Idaho wildland firefighter is $12.55 an hour.
As of Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center said almost 9,000 firefighters were battling wild fires across the U.S. About 80% of wildfires annually are started by people, often while enjoying outdoor activities or using fireworks.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.