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
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...