The crews wake up before sunrise to eat breakfast and begin the days work after sleeping too few hours laid out on the ground. A thin layer of dew covers everything, causing the scorched red dirt to stick. They work in blistering heat and dangerous conditions for more than 16 hours some days, sometimes for weeks.
Carrying up to 120 pounds on their distinctive, low-slung, black backpacks, the crew trek all their food, water and supplies they need over steep unbroken terrain for miles on end. They carry Pulaskis, Chainsaws, Hazel Hoes and McLeods. There are no trails to lead them.
All day and into the night, the crews fell towering pine trees, pile the undergrowth and cut a 10-foot-wide fire break. No clouds shade the continuous, back-breaking work. During the 2021 season, 58,733 individual wildfires burned over 7.1 million acres of land across the U.S. The wildfire season has increased by an average of 78 days per year since 1970.
As of Aug. 18, 59 large fires are reported burning through out U.S., with 2022 ranking above the ten-year average for number of fires and total acres burned.
The crews include workers known as “Hot Shots” because they dig trenches as firebreaks and toil closest to the flames. Others are called “Smokejumpers” or “Helitack.” All fight fires, but only now can they officially be called “firefighters.”
In late June, the Office of Personnel Management released a memo outlining an update to the classification of “federal wildland firefighters” as directed by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November.
The new Wildland Fire Management occupational series creates a unique job description and progression structure separate from the Forestry Technician series which had collectively governed wildland firefighters along with several other unique jobs since 1972.
The update details the the duties, skills and risks for the different types of wildland firefighters, including specialties for engine operations, aviation, fire prevention, parachuting, helicopter operations, fuel management and planning. Entry level positions start at the GS-3 rate with advancement up to GS-11.
“The issuance of the new Wildland Firefighter occupational series is a critical step in addressing long-standing wildland firefighter talent management challenges across the government,” the memo said. “The series is a part of the long-term solution to ensure federal wildland firefighters are supported, equitably compensated, and have a better work-life balance.”
All federal agencies who employ wildland firefighters have 12 months since the issuance date of the memo to implement the change.
The federal wildfire service has been facing a retention problem in recent years. Fire seasons, which once only lasted about four months out of 12, are now are almost year-round. The extending time away from home and grueling work coupled with low pay has led many in the service to switch over to state fire agencies or leave the service all together.
Casey Judd, the president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said the retention issued was a matter of recognition.
“The vast majority of our membership told us that if they were just recognized for who they are and what they do, and not asking for any more money, then they would hesitate to leave even if there was a good offer from CalFire or some other local, state or government agency,” Judd said. “And I know that is hard for a lot of people to believe.”
Wildfire seasons were relatively short and not as intense when the Forestry Technician occupational series was created. During the fire offseason, the forestry techs would be reassigned to other land management duties. The broad classification prevented over specialization at a time when that was not needed, which is contrary to what the current circumstances require.
The reclassification is not the first attempt by the federal government in order to increase retention of their firefighters. Previously, money has been tried as an incentive.
“The Forest Service threw out money in retention bonuses back in ‘07 and ‘08,” Judd said. “We knew that was going to be short lived and people were going to spend the money and still jump ship. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Money is also part of the current effort at increasing retention. The infrastructure bill raised federal wildland firefighter pay by $20,000 or 50 percent, whichever is less. This comes after President Biden raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour for the firefighters in June 2021.
But it’s not about money.
The badges that the Forrest Service firefighters have worn just say ‘Forest Service,’” Judd said.
He recalled at time he ran into former federal wildland firefighter who had left to join CalFire, California’s state wildfire agency. When asked why he left the federal service, the man pointed to the badge on his uniform. It said “Firefighter.”