Service crew

LA Times writes about trauma, low pay and morale of Forest Service firefighters

Fire crews at the Route Fire in Southern California at 4:40 p.m. on September 11, 2021, about five minutes before they were nearly trapped. Photo taken by one of the firefighters.

I have never seen such a thing. Over the past few months, many politicians have been motivated and nationally recognized media have tasked journalists with digging through the opaque barriers established by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service to expose the deterioration of the working conditions of forest firefighters. . Even though Congress passed legislation requiring improvements in several areas, the bureaucratic quagmire of inaction brought about by leaders’ indecisiveness led many to give up hope and resign.

Reasons cited by current and former firefighters include very low pay, long hours, too much time away from home, too little time with families, limited career development opportunities, housing costs, inadequate mental health support and the temporary and sometimes life-altering physical injuries sustained by these tactical athletes. This has led to severe difficulties in hiring and retaining firefighters, resulting in a large number of vacancies at all levels.

One of the last well-researched articles on declining working conditions for federal firefighters was published today, written by Los Angeles Times staff writer Alex Wigglesworth. He is intitulated, “Hellfires, low wages, trauma: California Forest Service firefighters face a morale crisis.

In addition to documenting and expanding on the questions above, their research revealed:

  • “Only 62% of federal fire stations [in California] are filled, according to a source within the agency. Prior to 2020, nearly all firefighter positions across the country were typically filled at this time of year.
  • “About a third of all Forest Service fire trucks in California are staffed for five days, which means there aren’t enough crew members to operate them seven days a week. .”
  • “Another 13% of engines are ‘out of staff’ – mostly parked due to lack of firefighters.”

The reporter mentioned Chris Mariano who was a GS-6 crew chief on the Truckee Hotshots in Northern California until April 7, 2022 when he resigned. Wildfire Today published a letter he wrote at the time. He said the writing was tough — the best part of his life was working as a hotshot in the Tahoe National Forest:

“I thrived – I was all in,” he wrote. “I wanted nothing more than to be a champion, to be a leader, to take care of the earth and to be of service. While the sense of purpose and camaraderie remains, I now feel hypocritical to recruit or encourage crew members to work for an agency that fails to sustain its fire management programs and therefore the audience.

“The agency is failing its firefighters on so many levels. Classification, compensation, work-life balance, mental health, presumed illness cover and injury/death support. Efforts are being made to correct some of these issues, but for many it is too little too late… We are losing people at a terrifying rate at a time when wildfires are burning longer, hotter, more frequently and with devastating gravity.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildfires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. See all articles by Bill Gabbert