Right now across Colorado, more than a thousand federal firefighters are working to contain blazes burning through tens of thousands of acres of brush, grass and timber.
None of the Forest Service workers battling these fires are actually considered firefighters — on paper. Their job titles are forestry or range technicians.
Most of these kinds of firefighters are temporary employees who only work through the summer. Their starting pay is around $13 an hour, much lower than they’d make at a local, state or private fire department.
Just as climate change is making fire seasons longer — with more intense blazes — the federal firefighting force faces staffing shortages and low morale. These problems have lingered for years, but there is some brewing momentum to increase pay and make other changes to address the shortages.
“It’s just a convenient bureaucratic sidestep of just labeling us forestry technicians so that they don’t have to give us the same benefits,” said Chris Ives, a squad leader for a hotshot crew in the San Juan National Forest near Durango in southwestern Colorado.
This is Ives’ 10th season with the Forest Service. It took him six years to get a permanent job that comes with year-round health insurance. Despite not carrying the label and pay of a firefighter, Ives estimates he spends 80 percent of his time fighting fires or on duties directly related to firefighting.
President Joe Biden has called federal firefighter pay “ridiculously low” and pledged to increase it. But some say it would still be too low.
At a video meeting with governors on June 30, he said the U.S. is late to the game and must act fast.
“We’re remembering the horrific scenes from last year,” he said. “Orange skies that looked like end of days. Smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe. More than 10 million acres burned. Billions of dollars in economic damage.”
The Biden administration announced it will use bonuses and incentives to boost firefighter pay to at least $15 an hour. Administration officials say they will also allow seasonal employees to work longer and train and equip more federal workers and military personnel to allow for surge capacity when needed.
Biden also pledged to work with lawmakers to create a permanent federal firefighting force.
Some firefighters say $15 an hour is still too low. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group representing federal firefighters, said the moves were a good first step but they want lawmakers to make long-term fixes.
CPR News spoke to a half-dozen U.S. Forest Service employees like Ives who have helped fight some of the country’s largest, most dangerous fires.
They say low pay and other labor issues have led to the staffing shortages in Colorado and other wildfire-prone states like California, Oregon and Washington. A search on USA Jobs, the federal government’s primary job site, regularly shows about 150 openings for forestry and range technicians across the country.
The shortage means firefighters are exhausted, and their mental health is suffering.
Ives said the gaps have to be filled by existing forestry workers who are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. The extra strain takes a toll on their mental health and personal lives.
“Not being able to take time off unless it’s a funeral or a wedding and just having that every year just gets a little more and more tiring and taxing on your psyche,” he said.
Many local and state fire departments have mental health programs designed to address stressors specific to a career in firefighting. The Forest Service doesn’t, said Ben Elkind, a smokejumper stationed in Oregon.
“You have real trauma and they’re not addressing that in any meaningful way,” he said.
Forest Service officials declined an interview request. In a written statement, a spokesperson said the service maintains a “robust and highly capable workforce,” but acknowledged that uncompetitive federal wages have led to high turnover and low recruitment.
Firefighters say the low pay is worsened by high housing costs in fire-prone areas where they’re often stationed.
That includes tourist spots and resort towns near national forests with million-dollar homes.
“I’d say maybe a quarter of our crew are living out of the backs of their trucks or camping out,” Ives said.
Ben McClane, who leads a wildfire crew based in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington, said firefighters who aren’t camping or living out of their vehicles often find housing in other residents’ basements.
“It’s almost like you’re hoping for charity from the local community,” McClane said.
All of the firefighters CPR News spoke to said similar things. Most had spent time living in their cars or trucks. One woman working for the U.S. Forest Service in southwestern Colorado, who didn’t want to use her name out of fear it would upset her supervisors, said she lives in an insulated shed because it’s the only shelter she can afford.
Stephen Pyne, a former wildland firefighter who teaches courses on fire and fire history at Arizona State University, said the Forest Service has long struggled with staffing for what used to be a seasonal-only occupation.
“They didn’t want to hire people full-time and they only wanted them when they needed them,” he said.
These days, the U.S. wildfire season is nearly year-long. Pyne said it’s like the federal government is fighting 2021 fires with a 1951 staffing mindset.
He says the Forest Service and other federal land agencies face many of the same labor challenges in other sectors.
“It’s the gig economy,’ he said. “You’ve got people who are working for relatively low wages, seasonal, very little career advancement for many of them. That sounds like a lot of unhappy workers in today’s economy.”
Many people whose lives and property are at risk count on federal firefighters.
David Schulman has lived in the forested area near Vail and Eagle, Colorado, for 20 years. On a recent weekday, he and a friend fixed a gate in the front of his ranch. It was one of the last houses accessible before emergency vehicles blocked the road, because in the forest near his ranch, the Sylvan fire was burning.
Schulman’s experience could be a sign of the increased need for firefighters during an era of climate change.
“None of this is new for me,” he said,” but having your house under imminent threat to where you could see the flames? That’s something I can do without.”
Most of the firefighters battling the blazes in the national forest behind Shulman’s ranch would make more money if they took an entry-level job with the local fire department in Eagle, population 6,500.
If the federal workers left for the fire department in Denver, most would more than double their pay.