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The U.S. is on pace to have its worst year yet for wildfire destruction. At the same time, federal firefighting crews are not only short-staffed, but struggling to retain and recruit members. Unlike full-time state firefighters, these federal wildland firefighters are hired as temporary employees who spend their summers traveling the country’s wildlands and working 16-hour days with breaks just twice a month. Housing is often so expensive in the areas they service (such as Los Angeles) that they sleep in their cars.
As a result, roughly 20% of federal firefighting positions are unfilled despite rising demand and constant calls for backup as staff put in over a thousand hours of overtime last summer.
Why doesn’t anyone want the job? On top of being physically exhausting and dangerous, there are quite a few reasons...
- First, there’s the issue of pay. Federal firefighters earn a base rate of $14 an hour even though a similar job at a state fire agency pays far more. For example, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pays $26 an hour.
- Even worse are the growing mental health concerns. First responders as a whole are 10% more likely than the general public to contemplate and attempt suicide; it’s more common for fighters to die of suicide than on the job.
- And there’s simply a lack of perceived respect. The official title for federal firefighters is “forestry technicians.” Multiple attempts to change this title to “wildland firefighters” have failed for years.
These concerns are all playing out through what some call an “unsustainable wildfire crisis.” In 2020 alone, Colorado saw three of the largest wildfires in the state’s history while California saw acreage burned double between 2016 and 2020. Many blame a history of poor forest management, ineffective fire suppression, severe droughts, and a growing population living in fire-prone wildland areas. Further, this decade’s fires are an entirely different ball game; we now have fire tornadoes, for instance, which can’t be fought with the tactics of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, a number of initiatives have been introduced in an effort to improve mental health services and hopefully prevent firefighter burnout.
- Early identification will be possible by pairing peer supporters trained to recognize behavioral health problems with crisis response teams sent out to treat serious physical injuries.
- Two federal organizations are extending their services to help firefighters assess their stress levels and ensure services are available off-season (not just on-season).
- Advocates are pushing for more, though, calling for an additional service connecting wildfire firefighters with mental health providers who have had similar experiences.
Federal dollars are also on the docket, but not for mental health. Last month, President Biden announced firefighter bonuses that will raise their minimum salary to $15, add incentives to convert seasonal firefighters to full-time employees, and make major investments into long-term fire management. This includes $2.5 billion towards fighting fires and $1.7 billion towards land management.
🎬 Take Action
Want to call on U.S. senators and representatives to include mental health services in their plans to help firefighters? Sign this petition started by a struggling wildland firefighter who has committed 14 years towards fighting wildfires across the country.
- The Guardian (Where we found this story) 3 weeks old | 30 minutes long
- NPR: CalFire’s mental health crisis 7 months old | 15 minutes long
- Washington Post: Biden addresses wildfire crisis 2 months old | 20 minutes long
- University of Washington: Learning to live with wildfires 2 months old | 7 minutes long
- Congressional Research Service: Wildfire growth between 2016 and 2020 1 month old | 11 minutes long