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Low Pay, Hiring Gaps Haunt U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Program

In an oversight hearing late last month before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter spoke truth to power, Wildfire Today reports.

Riva Duncan, who recently retired from the Fire Staff Officer position on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, testified remotely about job classification, pay disparity, employee health and well-being, recruitment, size of the work force, and fire seasons transforming into fire years.

You can watch a recording of the hearing at the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters website.

“I have watched many Congressional hearings about wildland fire and the agencies that manage them, and this is the first time I can remember that a firefighter who had worked their way up from an entry-level position and had not been tainted by serving time in the Washington Office, testified about firefighting conditions,” , writes WT publisher Bill Gabbert. “In 2016, Kelly Martin, then Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, testified about sexual harassment, but she was not asked questions about pay, hiring, and retention.

Duncan, now the executive secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, submitted 13 pages of testimony, but the last portion of her five-minute opening oral remarks had a memorable impact on the politicians. Toward the end she choked up a little—and Gabbert says you can probably guess which section provoked that response.

“I am not here to disparage the U.S. Forest Service,” she said, bringing her formal remarks to a close. “These issues are larger than any one agency and will take complex, and expensive, solutions. It truly was my honor to serve the U.S. Forest Service and the American people. I loved working in fire, but I love the people I worked with even more. I have grown weary of losing amazing friends and colleagues, and I have grown impatient with inaction. The U.S. is burning, wildland firefighters are struggling, and some are even dying. The time for reform is now.”

Not only were her words powerful, Gabbert says, but her delivery got the attention of the politicians—a “category of humans not generally known for their compassion and empathy”. During the rest of the hearing many of the Representatives used a little of their allotted time to tell her how much they appreciated her participation.

“I want to thank you for your testimony and your service, said Subcommittee Chair Joe Neguse (D-CO. “It’s incredibly powerful and certainly resonated with me and every member of our committee on both sides of the aisle.”

In her written testimony Duncan said the forest service’s “inability to hire and retain wildland firefighters has become readily apparent, with record-setting fire management vacancy rates through the federal service. Hiring managers are finding themselves unable to fill empty positions, and lacking compensation is a primary contributing factor.”

Neguse began the hearing by proposing a new “Climate Corps to address immediate restoration needs and create rural jobs…a pipeline for careers in land management and conservation.”

“We need more well-paid, permanent opportunities to grow the federal land management work force,” he said. “As the budget has shifted toward wildfire suppression, there has been a corresponding reduction in non-fire personnel costing us land managers, biologists, other scientists with the expertise for planning for fire to improve the resiliency of the landscape in the first place.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) asked about pay and transitioning to a full-time work force. “We can’t fix anything around the fire work force without adequate pay, a decent living wage,” Duncan replied. Later she talked about how funding has been cut across the Forest Service, not just in fire.

 “I truly believe it is unacceptable that we are asking federal wildland firefighters to protect the vast territories for just pennies on the dollar, and I’m hoping that we can take action in this committee to raise pay and benefits to support our firefighters as the professionals that they are,” Tlaib replied.

One U.S. Rep with Wildland Fire Background

“There is no such thing as fire season anymore,” said Rep. Teresa Fernandez (D-NM), who identified herself as “the first young woman hired to assist the State of New Mexico Forest Service during fire season” and added that all five of her brothers fought forest fires. When Fernandez asked what Congress can do to help, Gabbert writes, Duncan “laid the responsibility where it rightly lies—with the people she was testifying to and their colleagues.” She called for “real, meaningful reform” leading to new jobs and additional pay, adding that “I think most people would be shocked to know an entry-level wildland firefighter makes less than US$14 an hour. That’s embarrassing, and it’s amazing what these people, who risk their lives, make for a living. It’s a travesty.”

Why Would Anyone Want to be a U.S. Federal Wildland Firefighter?

“Why would anyone want to be a federal firefighter and get paid $13.45, below what we have been pressing for as the minimum wage for jobs that don’t require the kind of training and risk to your person?” Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) asked Duncan. “Why would anyone become a federal firefighter instead of a state firefighter where the pay is nearly double?”

“That’s the million-dollar question, and we’re struggling to hire people now into those entry level positions”, Duncan replied. “We’re struggling to staff our engines and our crews because of that. For some of them it’s a summer job, to put themselves through college.” For others who’ve grown up near a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office “they get bit by the fire bug, they love the career, and then find themselves making it difficult to meet financial goals.”

Read the rest of Wildfire Today’s account of Riva Duncan’s testimony here.