Federal agencies struggle to hire and retain firefighters: NPR

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Federal firefighters say they are again facing staffing issues and low morale. Reforms to fix salaries and hire more firefighters have stalled in U.S. agencies — despite promises to Congress.



TO MARTINEZ, HOST:

As climate change intensifies wildfire seasons, federal agencies struggle to hire and retain firefighters. Joe Wertz of Colorado Public Radio reporting.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Hillary Johnson is exactly the type of firefighter the feds need.

HILLARY JOHNSON: It’s busy and outdoors. And I loved the physicality of it. I loved the adrenaline that comes with fighting fires.

WERTZ: Johnson joined the US Forest Service in 2015 and rose through the ranks to become a smoker, an elite class of firefighters who parachute to contain fires in some of the most rugged terrain in the country. But now she’s leaving.

JOHNSON: I went out. Yeah, yesterday was my last day with the Forest Service.

WERTZ: Johnson earned $16 an hour and was a seasonal employee. She worked a lot of overtime to make the low pay worth it. In a few days she will start a new job as a software developer.

JOHNSON: I thought about it. And I just want a better work-life balance for myself.

WERTZ: To slow the turnover, the Biden administration approved one-time bonuses for firefighters last year. Congress also included $600 million in pay raises and other reforms in the infrastructure bill last year. But these increases…

JOHNSON: None of that came to me. As far as I know, none of this has taken effect yet.

WERTZ: Combine financial and schedule stress with a slow and uncertain career path, add the physical and mental toll, it’s quite a recipe that has led many federal firefighters to leave for more predictable and better paid – or, like Johnson, leave the field altogether. These tensions have been simmering for years among federal firefighters. Magnifying everything is a weather-fueled wildfire season that starts earlier, lasts longer, and grows more intense.

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WERTZ: On a recent Saturday, volunteer wildfire coordinator Katrina Stevens walked around her mountain neighborhood southwest of Denver. She watched the progress of her neighbors as they cleared brush away from home. Patti Seitz (ph) and her husband were stacking branches.

PATTI SEITZ: You know, you think you’ve cut down a ton of scrub oaks and you’ve done an amazing job. And then two years later, it’s exactly the same.

WERTZ: It snowed here a few weeks ago, but there is no trace of it. It’s hot, dry and incredibly windy. The National Weather Service has warned of extreme wildfire conditions. Forecasters have issued a large number of such warnings lately, 122 so far this year, and it’s only May. Stevens worries about understaffed and overworked federal fire crews. She lives on private land. But her home is connected to national forest land by trees, drought-baked brush and lots of wind.

KATRINA STEVENS: Most everyone would agree that at some point it will burn. It has been well over a hundred years since there has been a serious fire.

WERTZ: U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore testified about the shortage of federal firefighters earlier this month. He told Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley that the agency had hired more than 10,000 workers and that block staffing was about 90% of the agency’s goals.

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RANDY MOORE: But that 90% is a lot less than that in some geographies. It’s as low as 50% in some areas.

JEFF MERKLEY: Okay. Well, that’s – 50% sounds a little scary thinking about the fires we’ll be facing in our various states.

WERTZ: Moore told senators that the agency is replacing fire stations with other agency employees and contract firefighters. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management did not accept interviews, but say they are working to enact the reforms and secure federal funding for firefighter paychecks. They also say some of the hiring gaps will be filled when students complete their terms and apply for summer firefighting jobs.

For NPR News, I’m Joe Wertz in Denver.

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