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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.