Despite record funding, US firefighting efforts face a major hurdle: Hiring firefighters
SALEM, Ore. – The U.S. government committed a record-setting amount of money to fighting wildfires this year during what promises to be a busy season, but it's unclear whether enough firefighters will be available amid a nationwide labor crunch.
Fire season is off to a busy start as drought fuels danger from the Great Plains to Northern California. Federal officials are scrambling to hire roughly 16,900 fire personnel, including hotshots, smokejumpers and helitack crews, which are groups of firefighters that are flown in on helicopters to wildfires.
A letter from 28 members of Congress sent Tuesdaycalled on the two federal agencies that fight wildfires – the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior – to create a special pay rate for federal firefighters "to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce."
The two agencies have a combined budget of $4.7 billion. They have 1,549 fire engines and more than 310 helicopters, air tankers and airplanes that can drop water or watch forests for smoke.
Without adequate staffing, many of those fire engines could sit idle, the letter said, noting that "last year, fire officials were unable to fill an unprecedented 1,800 requests for wildland firefighting crews and more than 1,900 requests for fire engines."
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Overall, the number of firefighters and resources should be slightly up from last year. Both agencies can draw from funding for a couple of hundred additional firefighters and $100 million in disaster funds to avoid raiding their own budgets during expensive fire seasons.
The amount the federal government spends on wildfire suppression has steadily risen over decades as wildfires became larger and more intense, reaching a record-setting $4.38 billion in 2021. A year ago, monster infernos such as California's Dixie and Caldor fires burned more than a million acres, destroyed towns and more than 2,300 structures and cost $900 million and thousands of firefighters to suppress.
In addition to an uptick in federal firefighters, many states are upping the number of wildland firefighters they employ.
Concern about hiring firefighters
Though the federal government and states have optimistic goals, the reality of hiring firefighters has proved challenging in the tight labor market.
"This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the federal government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable," the letter from lawmakers said.
In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 4, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the agency hired about 10,200 firefighters, out of its goal of 11,300. Some areas reached only 50% of their staffing goals.
“We are making offers, and there’s a lot of declinations in those offers,” Moore said at the hearing. “There’s a lot of competition in the labor market for these skills. Because when you have county, state and private firefighters often sometimes [making] double the salaries the Forest Service firefighters are making, it’s very hard to compete with that.”
Firefighters with the Forest Service earn about $38,000 per year, while their counterparts who work for private or state firefighting agencies make closer to $70,000 to $80,000, acting Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen said at a hearing last year. Entry-level firefighters make as little as $15 per hour.
Forest Service officials declined to say exactly where the shortfalls in hiring were, but the statistics drew concern from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
“Fifty percent sounds a little scary when you’re thinking about the fires that we’ll be facing in our various states,” Merkley said at the hearing.
Merkley expressed confidence that “the agency is making steady progress in hiring more firefighters and is working to have the firefighting resources they need as wildfire season gets underway,” he said in an email to the Salem Statesman Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
The Department of the Interior, which plans to hire 5,600 fire personnel, said it had hired 4,100, but it was typical not to reach full staffing until summer.
The letter said years of low pay and other issues "hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce."
An end to ‘fire borrowing’ and rise of emergency fund
The amount of money available to federal agencies to fight wildfires has grown since a bill in 2018 established the ability for agencies to access a “disaster/reserve” fund that grew to $2.45 billion this year, up from $2.35 billion a year ago.
In 2018, Congress passed legislation that allowed the agencies to tap disaster funds when suppression costs exceeded their budget.
The Forest Service and Interior Department said the legislation helped eliminate the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which the agencies raided from recreation, engineering and even fire prevention programs to pay for the soaring costs of fighting wildfires.
The program works like this: If either agency uses up its entire fire suppression budget, it can go to the emergency fund rather than using up other parts of its budget. It can pay for additional contract firefighters, large fire camps or whatever else might be needed.
“Since 2018, the Forest Service and Interior are no longer forced to raid prevention funds to fight fires,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped write the legislation. “Oregonians know all too well the devastation of today's wildfires. When it comes to saving lives and property from destruction, prevention and suppression must go hand in hand.”
What will wildfire season look like this year?
The forecast of the coming season paints a picture of high wildfire danger in the Southwest before the above-normal risk shifts to Northern California by June, the entire middle of the county by July and much of the West Coast by August.
In California, a wildfire ignited Wednesday along the coastal bluffs in Laguna Niguel. At least 20 homes were burned in the area, where there are numerous multimillion-dollar mansions, according to fire officials.
“Looking at the risk map overall, I’d say we’re preparing for another long year,” said Jessica Gardetto, a National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman in Boise and a former wildland firefighter. “Almost the entire central swath of the country comes into the (high danger) zone, so if we have a lot of activity there, and then if we have the type of fires we’ve seen across the West recently, that could be a real strain on resources.”
During the height of the 2021 wildfire season, which was more active than normal, wildfire crews across the West, including in Oregon, reported being short-staffed as resources were shifted to areas where the danger to communities was highest.
“Last year, we did get stretched pretty thin on resources,” Forest Service spokesman Brian Reublinger said. “But it’s pretty normal that fires will exchange resources and things when one fire has a greater need over another, especially in a busy year.”
Much of the risk this season is spurred by the megadrought west of the Mississippi River. Seventy-five percent of the High Plains is experiencing at least moderate drought while 77% of the West is mired in severe drought, despite improvements during a wet and cool April, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The final ingredient is that long-term forecasts indicate a hot and dry summer across the USA – potentially fueling quick-spreading fires.
The fire season looks a bit better than a year ago – which set records for destruction and cost – but not much, Gardetto said.
“Honestly, at this point, all we can do is plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she said.
US wildfire suppression budget
U.S. Forest Service base funds: $1.011 billion
Department of Interior base funds: $384 million
Disaster/reserve funds: $2.45 billion
Unspent reserve funds from previous years: $612 million DOI; $271.7 million for USFS
Total possible funds: $4.7 billion
Federal firefighting resources (USFS and DOI)
Firefighters/personnel: 16,900 (11,300 USFS, 5,600 DOI)
Engines: 1,549 (649 DOI, 900 USFS)
Air tankers/helicopters/aircraft: 334 (111 DOI, more than 200 USFS)
Follow reporter Zach Urness on Twitter: @ZachsORoutdoors.