The Ruby Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew conducts burnout operations during the Dixie Fire, Lassen National Forest. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.
BY JESSICA GARDETTO
I recall the glycol ether scent of freshly printed paper as I filled out my first wildland firefighter application. I used a black ink pen, and I remember carefully inscribing each blank box to avoid a mistake that would force me to start all over again or use the dreaded liquid paper correction fluid. The application was about two pages. It took me around 45 minutes to judiciously fill in every box before inserting it into an envelope and nervously driving it over to the nearby Bureau of Land Management office.
This was the wildland firefighter application process in the late 1990s. We filled out a paper application and submitted it by walking into the nearest office, which undoubtably sounds bizarre to younger generations. I was hoping to become a wildland firefighter so I could pay for college since wildland fire activity typically began in the late spring or early summer and dwindled by the fall – a perfect summer job for a college student.
Times have certainly changed.
Now, wildland firefighter applications are done online through USAJOBS, and Interior’s Fire Integrated Recruitment Employment Systems website has some great hiring tips for applicants. There are no paper applications, no ink and paper smells. Applicants don’t have to worry about pen-and-ink mistakes because they can easily re-type. Applications are conveniently submitted with a mouse click rather than a drive to a nearby office (better for gas mileage!).
Wildland fire activity has also changed. Thankfully, I was hired as a seasonal wildland firefighter, which allowed me to pay for college by working hard in the summer months. While there’s still a need for seasonal, temporary wildland firefighters, fire activity now requires significantly more year-round employees. Longer, more intense fire years and the need to actively manage and reduce fuels across a vast, more-flammable landscape have increased pressure on the wildland fire workforce, which has traditionally been centered heavily on a temporary or career seasonal framework. The rapid expansion of the wildland urban interface, where wildfires are regularly intersecting with homes and entire communities, has further increased the strain on the wildland fire workforce.
Many wildland fire personnel are experiencing burnout as they spend months away from their families working in arduous, stressful environments. For a large majority, a few months of hard labor has now become 6 to 12 months of intense, mentally-taxing work. This takes a toll on their physical and mental health. The Interior and Agriculture departments, following guidance in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, are working together to better support wildland fire personnel.
Expanding firefighting capacity: The Interior and Agriculture departments are working to add capacity to their wildland fire workforce. Interior is planning to add 325 federal and 55 Tribal additional wildland fire positions this year. This will help the agencies meet the demands of wildland fire year-round while improving firefighter work-life balance.
Establishing a comprehensive wildland firefighter health and wellbeing program. Research indicates firefighters and other first responders may be at elevated risk for negative mental health impacts due to their work environment. The Interior and Agriculture departments are developing a joint behavioral health program to address the unique experiences and mental health challenges experienced by permanent, temporary, seasonal, and year-round wildland fire personnel.
Increasing firefighter pay. Most wildland firefighters must work hundreds of overtime hours to make ends meet – particularly as housing costs have drastically risen in most western states. This greatly contributes to burnout. The cornerstone of the department’s wildland fire workforce reforms is a permanent pay increase, which is supported in the President’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget. Legislation is required to implement the permanent pay reforms. The Interior and Agriculture departments, along with the Office of Personnel Management, developed a comprehensive legislative proposal for congressional consideration. It would establish a special salary table for all federal wildland firefighters to permanently increase their pay and provide all responders with additional compensation for all hours they are mobilized on a wildfire or other emergency incident. Emergency response and overtime are part of the job, but increased pay combined with more firefighter capacity will support improved wellbeing by giving firefighters more opportunities to take time off and recuperate while earning a livable wage.
Using existing internship programs, partnerships and other programs to create meaningful career pathways. By providing clear career paths and recruitment opportunities, Interior bureaus are fostering meaningful, well-rounded professions that result in lifelong, very rewarding careers.
Providing vital housing for wildland fire personnel. In addition, the workforce reform proposal increases funding for both departments to house firefighters and support personnel. The budget increases the Interior and Agriculture departments’ funding for facilities improvement and maintenance by $22 million and $50 million, respectively. These increases will go to repair, renovate, and construct housing for wildland fire personnel as they continue to encounter limited or unaffordable housing options in some locations.
Implementing a specific Wildland Fire Management, GS-0456 occupational series to further streamline career trajectory and professionalize wildland fire management careers.
It’s exciting to see wildland fire management change so much since I first submitted that handwritten paper application more than 20 years ago. The increasing support for the wildland fire workforce will improve their wellbeing as they work to save lives, communities, infrastructure, and precious natural resources every year. They give us their best, so we owe it to them—and the future wildland fire workforce—to do the same.
Jessica Gardetto is a OWF Public Affairs Specialist who started working as a wildland firefighter in her late teens to pay for college, which turned into a lifelong career in wildland fire management public affairs.