California Lacks Federal Firefighters as Dangerous Season Looms

By: - May 20, 2021 12:00 am

Firefighters watch as smoke rises from a brush fire scorching at least 100 acres in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles this week. The Forest Service is struggling to recruit and retain wildland firefighters in California. Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press

Federal wildland firefighter jobs in California are sitting open even as the West heads into what’s likely to be a brutal fire season.

That’s not just a problem for California—where wildfires have in recent years been among the largest and most dangerous in the country—but for the whole region, because federal crews travel to other states to beat back major fires.

The U.S. Forest Service’s California region is having so much trouble filling jobs that more than a third of its fire engines likely won’t be able to run seven days a week, according to an April Region 5 Forest Service document reviewed by Stateline. Sixteen of the region’s 273 engines may not be staffed at all, because of a lack of personnel or mechanical issues.

The April document compares planned to projected actual staffing for engines, other equipment and crews.

The agency projected a shortfall of 313 firefighters in Region 5 this year, at least 8% fewer firefighters than it aimed to employ. The shortfall is frustrating for many in California’s state government, which relies on the federal service to help put out wildfires, but has little control over staffing levels.

Thom Porter, the chief of California’s state fire agency, CAL FIRE, said he’s had regular conversations with California-based Forest Service officials about staffing this year. He said he’s most worried that when the agency’s teams are moved to fight fires in other states, the Forest Service won’t have enough people, or enough experienced people, to backfill those roles in California.

“If they’re unable to hire, if they’re unable to keep staff on when we’re having our most critical periods, it is a public safety risk,” Porter said of the Forest Service. “Because we so much rely on each other that—there isn’t a single agency in California that has all of the resources it needs for a major incident of any type. It’s all hands on deck.” 

It’s unclear how many federal firefighting jobs are unfilled nationwide, or how the situation compares to past years. Job vacancies may change in the coming weeks.

But the stakes are high for California, where four million acres burned last year, destroying more than 10,000 structures and killing 33 people. More than 13,000 acres already have burned this spring. Drought conditions and a warmer-than-normal weather forecast could set the stage for devastating fires this summer and fall.

Some of California’s federal hotshot crews—elite teams of about 20 who travel nationwide and take on the most challenging firefighting tasks—are struggling to hire enough people.

Recent surveys informally conducted by Forest Service officials suggest that over a third of the agency’s California-based crews are so short-staffed leading up to the fire season that they’re one or two injured crew members away from being downgraded. Lower-rated teams still fight fires, but they aren’t as efficient and skilled as hotshot crews.

­“We are aware of staffing and vacancy issues in our region,” said Jon Groveman, a spokesperson for the Forest Service in California, in an email. “Many of these issues are not new and crews and engines changing status based on staffing shortfalls has happened for many years. These issues revolve around compensation, remote and hard to fill duty stations and a competitive employment market.”

Groveman said federal agencies, and tribal, state and local partners are ready to respond to wildfires in California this year. “We will respond to every wildfire with the safety of the public and our firefighters as our highest priority,” he said.

Forest Service fire and aviation leaders in California are particularly worried about experienced, mid-career professionals—such as senior firefighters on engine and hotshot crews—leaving for CAL FIRE, local fire departments or utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, all of which offer better pay and benefits than the Forest Service.

It’s “a little terrifying” to know hotshot crews are losing expertise, said one such official, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer.

“We lose the ability to be as effective in protecting the public, and our communities and our forests, and it’s really dangerous for the crew members,” the official said. “The less qualifications and less experience we have as numbers decline year after year—the higher-risk, basically, our jobs become. We can’t continue to do the same things we’ve done as safely. I think that’s what’s scariest.”

All Hands on Deck

In the United States, wildfires are fought by local fire departments, state agencies, the federal government, private contractors, prison crews and sometimes teams from countries as far away as Australia and Israel. State, local and federal crews routinely cross state lines to suppress major fires.

The system is so complex that it’s hard to get a sense of overall staffing. The Forest Service, for instance, relies not only on full-time and seasonal firefighters but also employees who have non-fire jobs within the agency, but have firefighting credentials and can to pitch in to fight fires when needed.

In response to Stateline’s request for data on firefighting positions and openings filled by the Forest Service so far this year, spokesperson Babete Anderson said in an email that she could provide only the following information: the agency employs 9,000 permanent fire employees and typically hires 6,000 seasonal employees. The agency says in budget documents that it employs 10,000 firefighters.

The U.S. Interior Department, which oversees Bureau of Land Management and other public lands, employs about 5,000 firefighters, according to the agency.

State forest and fire protection officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon told Stateline that they don’t know of any wildland firefighter shortages in their states.

Yet Forest Service leaders acknowledge in internal discussions that the agency has trouble recruiting and retaining firefighters. “We know it’s a real issue,” Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said during a meeting with wildland firefighters this week.

She said the agency is exploring hiring and retention incentives, particularly in states such as California where it’s easy for firefighters to find higher-paying jobs with CAL FIRE or local fire departments. 

CAL FIRE’s overall pay and benefits structure can translate into significantly higher earnings over the course of a career, according to calculations by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a national advocacy group for federal firefighters.

Randy Moore, the regional forester for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region, which manages California’s national forests, also said in a separate staff briefing that filling firefighter jobs “has been an issue.” He said the agency is looking into improving firefighter pay. “There’s a lot of congressional interest in that, there’s a lot of agency interest in that,” he said. 

Members of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters recorded the briefings and posted the recordings to YouTube.

Current and former federal wildland firefighters say hiring is a chronic problem that’s getting worse.

They say key reasons include pay that hasn’t kept up with the cost of living and a relentless schedule that keeps firefighters on the job and away from their families for months at a time. Staffing shortages and the growing severity of wildfires have made it harder for firefighters to take time off and have contributed to mental health problems, they say.

From 2009 to 2019, 502 firefighters were killed while fighting wildfires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The current federal fire workforce is woefully understaffed and overworked, and people are at their breaking point,” Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, told a U.S. House subcommittee last month. Duncan served as a fire staff officer for the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon before retiring last year.

Duncan fought back tears as she described hearing from colleagues suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, and driving a firefighter friend to rehab.

She told Stateline that the federal government’s convoluted hiring process makes the recruitment process even harder. National forests start hiring in the fall for the following summer, she said; the process takes so long that some candidates give up and accept jobs elsewhere.

Retaining senior firefighters is also a problem, federal wildland firefighters say. “Right now, on my forest, we probably have five continued vacancies—I’d call it middle leadership—on some of our engine modules,” a Forest Service fire management officer based in the Southwest told Stateline. “And this is common throughout the Southwest, that’s not just here.”

The officer asked to remain anonymous, saying he feared reprisal from his employer. He said he leads a team of 40 firefighters, made up of both seasonal and full-time employees.

When crews have mid-level vacancies, he said, they lack the expertise needed to perform difficult tasks. The shortages also put stress on team leaders, who have fewer colleagues who can help make decisions or train rookies. “It affects the whole functioning of the unit,” he said.

California in Crisis

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, used his emergency powers this spring to add almost 1,400 new CAL FIRE seasonal firefighter positions, on top of the agency’s about 6,000 full-time and 2,600 seasonal employees.

“We aren’t just waiting for the next crisis to hit—this funding will support our heroic firefighters to save lives as they work to prevent and tackle destructive wildfires,” he said in a statement at the time.

Porter said the hiring spree is partly intended to address a shortage of hand crew personnel. Hand crews are 20-person teams that perform wildland firefighting tasks, such as felling trees and digging trenches, with handheld tools.

CAL FIRE has historically relied on incarcerated people to do those jobs. But these days, only about half of hand crew positions are sourced that way, Porter said, thanks in part to California’s shrinking prison population.

“The key piece that’s going to be a challenge for us is the availability of hand crews,” Porter said of staffing this year. “And that’s going to be on both the state and the federal side.”

Right now, CAL FIRE isn’t experiencing any workforce shortages, agency spokesperson Christine McMorrow said in an email.

The Forest Service, meanwhile, is struggling to hire for a range of positions.

Water-tenders, the trucks that bring water to fire engines, are likely to be short-staffed in Region 5 this year, according to the April document. About half of California’s 50 water-tenders aren’t expected to be staffed seven days a week.

Some Forest Service hotshot crews in the state are currently operating as “type 2” crews, state public data shows, a ranking that indicates they don’t have enough people to qualify as a hotshot crew.

To fix the agency’s hiring and retention problems nationally, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters wants Congress to change federal firefighters’ official job classification, improve pay and retirement benefits, and reward firefighters for earning advanced qualifications.

A bipartisan group of nine U.S. senators who represent Western states recently asked the Government Accountability Office to review barriers to federal firefighter hiring and retention, review the firefighter pay scale and make recommendations on whether agencies should transition to a full-time force.

Duncan said the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters doesn’t want the government to make seasonal positions full-time without giving firefighters a raise. “We’re not pushing for that unless they can pay us significantly more,” she said, “and give us more time off during fire season.”

Several Democrats said during the recent U.S. House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing that they support raising federal firefighter pay. “The need for them to earn a living wage and us to do more is certainly a priority for me,” said the subcommittee chair, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado. 

Republicans were more focused on calling for more tree thinning and prescribed fire projects, which can slow wildfires. “What do you think we could do to fix that land management problem, so we’re not having to hire more firefighters?” U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the committee’s ranking member, asked Duncan. 

But land management projects also are part of federal wildland firefighters’ job duties.

“Fires are growing more intense, they’re larger in size, and we simply don’t have the resources to address this problem, nor do we have the resources to manage the forests,” said the California fire official.

“If the expectation is that this fire suppression workforce … can both suppress fires and still accomplish their targets for fuels reduction to keep our communities safe—it’s nearly impossible,” he said.

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.