The Forest Service should embrace a full-time workforce

Permanently investing in firefighters would improve the health of employees and the landscapes we protect.

 

Los Padres National Forest firefighter Jameson Springer watches a controlled burn on the so-called “Rough Fire” in the Sequoia National Forest, California, on August 21, 2015. In California, suffering its worst drought on record, about 2,500 people were forced to flee camps east of Fresno at Hume Lake as the Rough Fire crossed Highway 180, officials said.

When I began working as a hotshot firefighter for the Forest Service in 2001, I was hired as a part-time, temporary worker. At the time, over half the crew was made up of part-time employees. Today, the Forest Service employs approximately 10,000 wildland firefighters, but still less than half of them are permanent full-time workers.

When the Forest Service was formed in the early 20th century, it had only a handful of forest rangers. If a fire broke out, men were pulled out of saloons and other public places to fight it. Since then, the agency has ballooned in size, and its wildland firefighting has changed dramatically. Much of the weight of firefighting now falls on the shoulders of the Forest Service. The agency already helps manage 500 millions acres of land, but it’s also called in whenever fires get big enough to require national support. Half its annual budget is spent on wildfires, with spending increasing exponentially even as the agency’s overall budget remains nearly static. This spending eats into other Forest Service responsibilities, such as fuel management and mitigation, maintenance, and the tending of forest and grassland health.  

The unpredictable nature of wildfires, longer fire seasons, and increased development of housing and communities in fire-prone areas makes predicting a yearly budget a complex and sometimes impossible task. Shifting towards a full-time force is a move in the right direction. It can increase firefighter security and stability, and improve the health of our forests and grasslands, as well as help contain the volatile fire seasons we’ve seen in recent years. Adding more permanent firefighters to the roster would have several effects, all of them far-reaching and significant. The most obvious would be the year-round staffing of crews, which currently operate on a seasonal basis.

Less obvious are the ways in which this shift could change the fundamental culture of wildland firefighting. Many firefighters travel far from their home base during the winter, and there’s a high turnover rate, with many leaving the profession altogether after only a couple of years. As a seasonal worker, I would have been supported by full-time work and the benefits that could come with it. Of course, the impact of the long hours would have to be mitigated, but financial security would help.

There’s also an ecological intimacy that can be developed by staying on the forest for the winter. Eliminating the transient nature of seasonal positions could integrally connect firefighters to their local forests, aiding in the development of local fire regimes and strengthening relationships with other local agencies, both government and nonprofit. It could also increase employee retention, decrease training costs, and lower the risk of injury or death. Imagine, for example, local fire crews working with Indigenous populations and nonprofit groups to improve fire health year-round.

Imagine, for example, local fire crews working with Indigenous populations and nonprofit groups to improve fire health year-round.

Currently, seasonal employees lack access to the main perks of government employment: health insurance, paid time off and retirement packages. Access to health care should be essential for firefighters, and many current seasonal employees would be happy to trade winters off for steady employment and benefits. Meanwhile, year-round employment could help stabilize the Forest Service budget, clear its $5.2 billion maintenance backlog, and, over time, create healthier forests and grasslands, increasing carbon sinks and leading to less destructive wildfires.

When I worked as a seasonal firefighter, it felt like my life was on pause in the winters. I eagerly waited for the start of fire season. Ironically, that signified stability. If my peers and I had been employed full-time, we would have worked better together, gained a deeper understanding of our local jurisdictions, and had more opportunities for training and education. We also would have been insured and felt more respected as employees. Ultimately, the decision to grant the Forest Service increased funding to support more permanent employees could lead to a more positive outcome, not only for the agency and its employees, but for the ecological systems that are integral to our survival.

Anastasia Selby is currently working on a narrative nonfiction book, HOTSHOT, which describes her time as a wildland firefighter and details the history of forest management and Indigenous land practices in the Western United States. She is based in Seattle. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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