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US wildfire season picks up pace despite crippling staff shortages

In the southwestern United States, the wildfire season started earlier than usual this year, as dangerous drought conditions persist across 48% of the country.

Meanwhile, state and federal forest services are struggling to fill thousands of vacancies for wildland firefighters as potential candidates turn to more lucrative and less demanding careers.

The worst part of the fire season usually hits between June and August. Nevertheless, as of May 21, the country had already experienced 26,321 wildfires that had destroyed more than 1.6 million acres.

In New Mexico and Arizona, this is especially prevalent. Due to the early outbreak of conflagrations, President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for New Mexico on May 4.

More than 600 fires had burned across the two states by early May 2022.

Amid the growing demand for wildland firefighters, the US Forest Service can hardly provide jobs in some states.

Alex DeLeon, 37, of the US Forest Service in Lake Tahoe, watches the Kincade Fire burn on a ridge between Lake and Sonoma counties, Oct. 29, 2019. (Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

“Ten years ago, people were breaking down doors. For two jobs, we would have 100 applicants,” Texas Fire Program Manager Chris Schenck told The Epoch Times.

Schenck worked with the forest service for 34 years and has a son who serves as a forest firefighter in Utah.

Today, he is still working in wildfire mitigation at his “retirement job” for Texas.

In March 2022, multiple fires coalesced to form the Eastland Complex Fire, which scorched more than 54,000 acres and set a record as the largest wildfire in Texas to date. Damage estimates from the historic fire resulted in more than $23 million in agricultural losses alone.

When it comes to fighting deadly wildfires, Schenck said it’s passion, not pay, that brings people into the business.

And America’s passion for firefighting seems to be waning.

“Now they [U.S. Forest Service] go to these job fairs and will likely have to make a second trip because they don’t have enough qualified candidates or sometimes even interested candidates for entry-level positions,” Schenck explained.

In June 2021, Biden raised the minimum wage for wildland firefighters to $15 an hour. Additionally, permanent frontline workers would receive up to 10% retention bonuses. Temporary workers who agreed to stay the whole season were entitled to an additional salary of $1,000.

“Last year, approximately 14,300 firefighters received a permanent minimum wage increase to $15 an hour,” Sheri Ascherfeld of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, told The Epoch Times.

Epoch Times Photo
In this photo from July 28, 2015, Forest Department firefighters prepare to work on the Cable Crossing Fire near Glide, Oregon. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP)

For the prospect, the pay raise is about the same hourly wage as an average shift manager or assistant manager at a fast food restaurant.

“This year, we continue to look for ways to improve their compensation and hope that more information will be released in the coming months on how Congress and the departments will provide them. [wildland firefighters] more help,” Ascherfeld said.

An astonishing 15 bills were introduced in 2021 that fell under wildfire management and support, all of which await congressional approval. Only a few made it to committee hearings.

Buried in that list is HR 5631, or the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighters Classification and Pay Equity Act, introduced last October by Rep. Joe Neguse.

The bill includes provisions such as additional wage increases for workers, health care, mental health services for all wildfire fighters and housing allowances.

Ascherfeld explained that federal fire management agencies have received $600 million to invest in wildfire management, much of which will be spent on increasing pay rates and transforming seasonal positions or part-time into permanent and full-time jobs.

“Much of the workforce is made up of students who come back every summer. So right now, there’s a lot of hiring and training. Many of our crews come aboard and do their critical training at this time of year before going to the line of fire,” she noted.

The US Forest Service had 8,300 firefighters trained and ready to fight the increasingly deadly blazes in April. However, that number is just 73% of what the agency said it hoped to muster to fight this year’s wildfires.

“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outweigh the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said before adding: “Our experts expect the trend to only get worse.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks about the administration's strategy to improve national nutrition and persistent poverty, at the National Press Club in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the National Press Club in Washington DC on September 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

During testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 4, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore admitted that in some areas the agency has only met 50% of its staffing targets.

“We do deals, and there are a lot of variations in those deals,” Moore said.

Schenck attributes this not only to low wages, but also to a change in the type of work demands younger generations are willing to take on in their profession.

“What young people want from work [today] it is very different. And you look at the daily work of firefighters: long hours, usually during the summer when most people take vacations with their families.

“There are demands on this job [wildfire fighting] what I can see, with what some people want, would be less appealing to them,” he said.

Additionally, Schenck says college graduates aren’t as attracted to natural resource careers involving wildfire management.

“I told an 8th grade guidance counselor I wanted to be a ranger and she was like ‘it doesn’t pay much’…and you know what, she was right. But honestly, I’ve loved my job throughout my career. It was hard and satisfying work.

Year-to-date April area burned is about 70% above the 10-year average, with the vast majority located in the American Southwest. Most of this area is expected to have significant above normal fire potential for the remainder of May and June.

autumn spredemann

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Autumn is a South American-based reporter who primarily covers Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.

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