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California wildfire continues

Lack of federal firefighters hurts California wildfire response

This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, on July 14, 2021.

As fire season heats up in California, firefighter shortages in the state are getting worse.

Only half of U.S. Forest Service fire engines in the region are fully staffed and able to run seven days a week, according to the agency’s latest records. Back in April, internal agency documents anticipated that a third of the 273 engines would be understaffed. Twenty-eight of the agency’s engines now aren’t running at all.

Forest Service firefighters in the Golden State say all kinds of jobs are sitting open, from hand crew members to bulldozer operators, and that crews assigned to major fires are struggling to assemble teams.

California needs all the firefighters it can get as wildfires grow larger and more dangerous. Shortages of federal firefighters there also could hurt other states, as the federal government moves crews around the country when large fires break out. As of Tuesday, 67 large fires were burning in 12 states including California.

The Forest Service’s staffing woes particularly worry local leaders in areas where communities border federal land. “It’s incredibly concerning,” said Stacy Corless, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Mono County, California.

Corless lives in and represents the town of Mammoth Lakes, a vacation destination surrounded by the Inyo National Forest. She said she heard this spring that the forest was having trouble hiring but that it was eventually able to staff its engines.

Local fire departments in Mono County work closely with the Forest Service and local officials check in with the agency throughout fire season, she said, so they can keep their constituents informed.

“People start to see a smoke plume go up, and they get afraid,” Corless said. “They want to know what’s going on, is the Forest Service on it, are they going to put this fire out?”

Drought and record high temperatures have heightened fire risk across the West this year. More than 2 million acres have burned already, compared with about 1.6 million by this time last year.

More than 142,000 acres have burned in California. In Northern California, fires that started on federal land have burned so close to communities in recent weeks that families have been ordered to evacuate.

Low pay, long deployments and a bureaucratic hiring process make it hard for federal agencies to fill jobs, say current and former federal wildland firefighters. They say that morale is low and many firefighters have been pushed to their limit by the stress of the job.

The Forest Service’s recruitment and retention problems in California are no secret, said David Alicea, the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council’s vice president for the California region. NFFE is the union that represents Forest Service employees.

“We train some of the best firefighters in the world,” he said, “but we can’t retain them because we aren’t paying [them].”

President Joe Biden earlier this month announced one-time raises and bonuses for federal wildland firefighters to ensure they earn at least $15 an hour. It’ll be up to Congress to improve pay and working conditions over the long term.

It’s hard to get a sense of wildland firefighter staffing because the national system for fighting blazes is so complex. Multiple federal agencies, state, local and international teams all work together to respond to wildfires. Some agency employees who don’t have firefighting day jobs also pitch in.

Federal agencies employ 15,000 firefighters nationally, officials say. CAL FIRE, California’s firefighting agency, employs about 8,700 permanent and seasonal firefighters, and also uses inmate crews.

But the situation in California offers a glimpse of the challenges faced by federal agencies, which manage federal land and coordinate the national response to wildfires. Roughly a third of the nation’s federal firefighters work for the Forest Service in California.

The Forest Service’s California region had filled 3,820 of 4,620 planned permanent and temporary positions as of early July, agency spokesperson Regina Corbin wrote in an email to Stateline.

Meanwhile, she said, the agency also has hired an additional 2,229 emergency firefighters, known as ‘administratively determined’ employees. Those emergency hires are members of the public who are on call to help respond to a fire. They range from rookies to retired Forest Service firefighters.

Internal planning documents obtained by Stateline through a public records request suggest the Forest Service’s staffing problems in California have gotten worse over time. In June 2015 the region’s leaders expected 96% of engines to be fully staffed, for instance. In June 2020, the share was 59%.

Internal vacancy and staffing data reviewed by Stateline sheds additional light on the agency’s hiring troubles this year and reveals that it’s become harder for the agency to fill leadership positions on fire crews in recent years.

Hiring for most permanent firefighting positions in the Forest Service happens twice a year, in the spring and fall. The agency sought to fill 781 vacant permanent positions in California during spring hiring this year, according to the data. But it ended the hiring period with 725 vacancies. That’s a net gain of just 56 employees.

Many open jobs were filled by promoting or reassigning existing staff, said a California-based Forest Service fire official involved in hiring. He requested anonymity because he feared retribution from his employer for speaking to a reporter.

“For the most part, we did a lot of shuffling the deck with the same employees,” he said. Meanwhile, he said, firefighters continued to quit or retire.

Almost two-thirds of vacancies at the end of spring hiring were for senior firefighters on engine crews, the data reviewed by Stateline shows. Senior firefighters must have a college degree, have completed key training courses, and either need to have prior firefighting experience or have graduated from California’s wildfire apprenticeship program.

Such vacancies threaten the agency’s ability to staff leadership roles in the future, the official involved in hiring said. “That’s your succession planning.”

The data Stateline reviewed only captures senior firefighter vacancies since fall 2019, so it’s hard to say whether such positions are becoming harder to fill. But the data does show it’s getting harder to staff supervisory positions on fire crews, such as superintendents and squad leaders.

Wildland firefighter staffing isn’t just about filling seats on a helicopter or engine, or positions on a hand crew. Teams also must have the right mix of expertise to be able to operate at full capacity—or at all.

Thirty-one of California’s 44 hotshot crews are fully staffed, Corbin said. Hotshots are elite squads of about 20 who travel nationwide to fight major fires.

Some California hotshot crews don’t have enough firefighters, or enough experienced ones, to qualify as hotshots, other Forest Service officials told Stateline.

Short staffing also shows up in other ways, the official involved in hiring said. When a large wildfire breaks out, for instance, there are fewer firefighters around who aren’t assigned to a crew and who can leave their day jobs to help.

The official involved in fire hiring said he expects the number of such requests reported ‘unable to fill’—in agency-speak, UTF—to increase this year.

“I know that I get called to send people, and I’ve UTF’d damn near every order that’s come to me,” he said.