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Wildland Firefighters: Slash and Burn?

As wildfires rage hotter and spread faster, federal wildland firefighters on Nov. 17 face fiscal pay cliff, slash in workforce

On Nov. 17, federal wildland firefighters face a pay cliff, which could cause massive workforce losses of up to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Here, military firefighters walk to buses near the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park during the fires of '88. Sept. 4, 1988. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
On Nov. 17, federal wildland firefighters face a pay cliff, which could cause massive workforce losses of up to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Here, military firefighters walk to buses near the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park during the fires of '88. Sept. 4, 1988. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
by Julia Barton

Wildfires have become an increasingly dire problem facing the American West over the past two decades as a combination of climate-related changes and inadequate forest management have created the perfect conditions for large, frequent burns. To extinguish these fires—and to proactively mitigate fire risk before burns start—we rely heavily on the work of roughly 19,000 federal wildland firefighters who are currently facing a steep pay cliff.

In November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided a pay raise of 50 percent up to $20,000 to federal wildland firefighters. That funding will expire on Nov. 17 of this year, the same date the U.S. government is set to shut down, substantially cutting pay for firefighters working for the federal government.

The proposed bipartisan solution is called the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, a bill that would commit federal funds to increase the pay scale for wildland firefighters in perpetuity and address the physical and mental burnout seen in the field. The bill would also provide paid leave and increased wages for firefighters responding to prolonged fire incidents. A similar bill was proposed to Congress in 2021 with no action.

“Federal wildland firefighters are grossly under compensated in order to make ends meet,” said Lucas Mayfield, president of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group for federal wildland fire personnel. “We're not able to keep the new folks that are coming in because they can't make a living doing it.”
Such losses to the firefighting workforce “would be nothing short of calamitous for America’s forests and nearby communities.” – Sept. 14 letter from bipartisan delegation to U.S. Senate leadership
Mayfield, a former assistant hotshot superintendent, spent 20 years as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. He said the work is physically and mentally draining, and the added financial stress makes the profession highly unsustainable. Without increased funding, most firefighters earn the federal minimum wage as their base pay, causing them to rely on overtime and hazard pay to support themselves and their families. Mayfield recalled many colleagues working upwards of 120 hours a week during fire assignments.

With such harsh working conditions, federal crews already have a hard time retaining their workforces since many people leave for private or state programs with better funding, or leave the profession altogether, according to Mayfield. The Forest Service estimates that up to 50 percent of its firefighters would leave if the act does not pass. In a Sept. 14 letter to U.S. Senate majority and minorities leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, a bipartisan delegation wrote that such losses to the firefighting workforce “would be nothing short of calamitous for America’s forests and nearby communities.”
During the wildfires of1988, nearly 800,000 acres–or 40 percent–of Yellowstone National Park was affected by fire. More than 25,000 firefighters were deployed to fight on the front lines. Photo by Mike Lewelling/NPS
During the wildfires of1988, nearly 800,000 acres–or 40 percent–of Yellowstone National Park was affected by fire. More than 25,000 firefighters were deployed to fight on the front lines. Photo by Mike Lewelling/NPS
The letter goes on to argue that “due to the dangers that wildfires pose to our forests and communities, a lack of action to ensure the fair treatment of our Federal wildland firefighting workforce would jeopardize national security.”

Without an adequate workforce, federal wildland firefighters will be hard pressed to manage the fires scorching the West each year, let alone do preventative work—such as removing deadfall and tending to prescribed burns—in order to mitigate fire risk and bring the landscape back to a sustainable equilibrium.

“The Protection Act [would provide] some breathing room and flexibility by increasing the capacity and numbers of people on the ground fighting fire,” Mayfield told Mountain Journal. “But with the state that our western landscapes are in ... we also need action taken to increase the land management workforce capacity so we can start digging out of this hole we put ourselves in.”

With the impending Nov. 17 fiscal pay cliff, Mayfield with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is urging people to contact their representatives in support of the bill.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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