Biden’s effort to contain wildfires threatened by staffing woes


“It’s kind of like this two-headed monster of a problem right now because at a time when we’re trying to ramp up our fuels treatment and deal with the catastrophic fires that we’re seeing due to climate change, we’re also hemorrhaging the very people that are supposed to be doing this work,” said an Arizona-based wildland firefighter who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk freely. “And society is changing at the same time and people are starting to understand their worth a little bit better. So it’s a really crazy time for wildfire to be so out of control. And it scares a lot of us.”

Workplace conditions like low and non-competitive wages and housing availability and affordability have long been issues for the Forest Service recruitment.

The Biden administration attempted to tackle the pay issue last summer, raising the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighters to $15 an hour. The new wage, which started in January, was widely applauded, but it still hasn’t kept up with the competition.

“We continue to be outflanked by the West Coast states,” which, collectively, hire tens of thousands of wildland firefighters for their own fire departments, said a Forest Service fire manager who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “We continue to be outflanked by the private sector. There’s a $15 an hour minimum wage across a lot of the West Coast, but I just saw the other day at one of the department stores $18.31 an hour starting wage.”

As previously reported, some state agencies like California Fire pays new firefighters $50,000 a year. They are not facing applicant shortages.

Hannah Ohlson, a Forest Service fire prevention technician in Colorado, just wrapped up a hiring process she described as “pretty brutal”: Out of 10 vacancies, her post was only able to fill five. Many either applicants found jobs elsewhere, couldn’t find housing or didn’t show up for the job. A few employees defected for jobs with better pay and benefits.

Joseph Landburg, a Forest Service assistant fire manager, said housing issues are a recurrent theme in discussions with prospective employees. Many need to relocate temporarily to areas needing forest management and need either housing or sufficient wages to account for the high cost of living in the West.

The Forest Service administers 3,320 housing units for USDA and other emergency personnel nationwide. But many Forest Service employees say these units are not maintained, and some are unlivable.

“There are very few bunkhouses in good condition. And then the [rental] rates have continued to kick up with the local real estate market,” said the fire manager. “So you might offer housing to an individual and it might be slightly cheaper than renting in the local community. But the condition of the space is not well-kept and it’s not well maintained.”

A USDA spokesperson acknowledged that large numbers of firefighters and support personnel often find that conventional lodging is either unavailable or impractical due to the distance between available lodgings and the location of wildland fires, which are often in remote areas.

There are not many immediate remedies, however. Fire suppression costs have taken up a bulk of the Forest Service’s discretionary budget, eating into what can be done about fixed-cost items like housing facilities.

Tea bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed in the fall contains $600 million to help USDA and the Interior Department increase wages and convert seasonal employees to full time. USDA said it has already transitioned 1,000 employees. The infrastructure law also directed the Office of Personnel Management to reclassify the agency’s employees so they are eligible for higher pay.

Congress is weighing a standalone Forest Service bill, called Tim’s Act after wildland firefighter Tim Hart, who died while fighting a fire in 2021, which would increase firefighter minimum pay to $20 an hour and provide a housing allowance and other benefits. Proponents of the bill hope parts of the legislation will be included in the 2023 omnibus spending or National Defense Authorization legislation.

The intensive staffing challenges raise questions not just about the Forest Service’s ability to respond to this summer’s wildfire season, which could again be destructive given drought conditions in the West. Experts say they also put in doubt the 10-year forest management plan the Biden administration unveiled earlier this year, aimed at increasing reforestation and land management efforts on 50 million additional acres of land — a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda. It will be funded with $3 billion from the infrastructure bill. USDA declined to approximate how many additional staffers it will require the agency to hire.

“The 10-year plan for fire and fuels mitigation efforts, it’s like having a brand new truck and no gas when you don’t have the workforce to go out and do this stuff,” Landburg said.

“With staffing, as it is right now in terms of number of people and the qualifications that we have and the morale in the agency, it would be pretty hard to reach those goals,Ohlson echoed.

According to the Forest Service hiring manager, the department could contract positions out, but that, too, would require more staff, at least on the front end.

“All of our contracting officers are currently being utilized on field production projects that were already funded. If we add a ton more money into the system, a ton more contracts, we need more contracting officers, and that requires building a workforce,” the firefighter manager said.

USDA’s 10-year wildfire mitigation plan acknowledges the staffing needs, stating that “next steps will include building our workforce capacity in the Forest Service and with partners to accomplish the work at the scale needed and establishing the large multijurisdictional coalition needed to support the work.” It said the agency is working to implement the new firefighter job series classification, increase salary base pay, and convert more than 1,000 seasonal firefighters to permanent positions. Tea implementation plan emphasizes cross-government collaboration on training and workforce-sharing.

USDA said the OPM, Forest Service and DOI have convened a workgroup that is meeting regularly to work on a new wildland firefighter pay structure mandated by the infrastructure law. The group will hold focus group sessions in March, with the work required to be completed by May.

“We have seen key, highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees, which we understand is due to wage disparities,” said Larry Moore, a USDA spokesperson. “Other work is already under way – like the development of a new wildland firefighter job series – to maximize resources, funds, and support across government and Congress to improve our ability to recruit and retain the wildfire workforce we need.”

The agency won’t see the fruits of that labor immediately, however. “The human capital is not there, regardless of how much money” the federal government provides, said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group. “We could probably work with junior colleges and universities to ramp up to the knowledge that is set. But the actual experience and skill set is still going to take five to seven years.”

“It takes time to develop a workforce and we’re going from an administration whose understanding of the issue was that the agency needed to rake the forest floor to an administration that wants to see us use the latest science and technology across hundreds of millions of acres across the West,” the fire manager said. “The forest doesn’t respond to year-over-year changes in administrations. The forest responds to generational changes in how we manage it.”


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