Digging in

Wildland firefighters deserve equal pay

| October 24, 2013

Federal wildland firefighters make up the single largest professionally trained firefighting force in the world. We staff fire engines and earthmovers, work from helicopters and jump from planes, and move as 20-person, well-coordinated crews of "ground pounders." We also put together incident management teams to manage many kinds of relief efforts.

Our teams have dealt with emergencies like 9/11 in New York City and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But on paper—for bureaucratic reasons—we are not called "firefighters." Instead, we are called forestry and range "technicians."

To us, that distinction is a longstanding joke that's not remotely funny. The failure to recognize who we are and what we do comes at a great price.

Missoula Independent news

Few Americans see a green fire engine for what it is, have any idea what hotshot crews face on the fire line, or have even heard of helitack. Even those closest to us may not fully grasp the long shifts we endure or the risks we take. But we love what we do; anyone who doesn't soon decides that the commitments are too many and the sacrifices are too great.

The dangerous conditions encountered in wildland firefighting, combined with the rush of adrenaline and a sense of duty and brotherhood, are exactly the reasons we love our jobs. We not only accept these aspects of our work, we live for them! There are, however, other aspects of the job that are harder to accept, particularly for those who rely on the work to support families. Few Americans realize this, but federal firefighters are treated and paid considerably less than our counterparts in private, city and state agencies.

For example, many non-federal firefighters are guaranteed hotel rooms and 24-hour pay when they're working away from home. Federal firefighters, though, usually sleep in the dirt, like convict crews, and we are not paid for more than 16 hours per day on incidents.

Federal firefighters regularly work 112-hour workweeks for two or three weeks at a time, yet we are not compensated for at least one-third of that time. The nickel-and-diming we face goes further: Firefighters are often required to staff fires overnight without pay, and lunch breaks are seldom paid. On prescribed fires, hazard pay is not given even though we are required to carry emergency fire shelters with us.

These and other discrepancies in treatment and pay contribute to dismal retention rates among federal agencies. Millions of dollars are wasted annually to hire and train new firefighters, though many will leave as soon as they're offered fire jobs with better hours, benefits, pay and pensions.

Federal firefighters are generally hidden from public view. We are stationed in the outdoors, and we are (happily) grimy, dirty, smelly and hairy during those 16-hour shifts on the fireline. The media are seldom permitted to enter our hazardous work zones. Unfortunately, this low profile means that our job is easily misrepresented and misunderstood. The public remains ignorant about who we are and what we do. As wildland firefighters, our faces and stories rarely make the news—unless we die on the job.

The problems we face should be illuminated, but constructive dialogue is hampered by the old-school "can-do" work ethic coupled with the "shut-up-and-do-your-job" mentality. The lack of public awareness means that our working conditions remain the same, and the problems I've described here go unreported, and therefore unresolved.

Still, some stalwart supporters and lobbyists have fought for decades to improve our pay and working conditions. This year, for the first time, seasonal firefighters were given access to health benefits. A recent bill introduced in Congress would address some of the other issues I've described, but the Wildland Firefighter Protection Act (HR 2858) is unlikely to be signed into law if no one knows about it. That's why I'm breaking my silence on the subject: I hope that public pressure and support for federal firefighters will carry this proposed legislation into law. Here's a way to stand with federal firefighters: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/wildland-firefighter.

It hurts not to be recognized for the hard work we do, and to be denied the benefits and financial support systems that other "real" firefighters automatically receive. We have no shortage of personal pride in our work, but that pride often appears to be unshared by our own government, elected officials and the public we serve.

Lindon Pronto is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been a seasonal wildland firefighter for six years; the opinions he expresses here are his own. He lives in Auburn, Calif.

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Comments (5)

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Yes, this guy is a fool and his situation does not reflect the situations of the rest of the country in the wildland firefighting occupation. Just because CALFIRE employees are a bunch of weaklings and must sleep in hotels every night doesn't mean the rest of the wildland community must stoop to their thin skinned levels. And if you are in your current firefighting position to be in the spotlight you should grow up and do your job. The fire shelter you carry doesn't mean you should get your "H" pay because every wildland firefighter in America carries one as an absolute last resort survival tool (or in the case of jumpers, just to use as a $400 space blanky to stay warm while making coffee) and in many countries fire shelters are not carried because thinking comes before acting. And "working 16hrs a day" is not the same as WORKING 16HRS A DAY!!! This feeble minded complainer needs to find another federal job that will keep him warm at night and his three chin hairs shaven daily! Why do you think you are so great that the United States taxpayers should pay you to stuff your face with free food when you can't just shut your mouth and do your job in the first place? And where does he think that federal firefighters make less than state or private firefighters? Maybe in CA? And the Independent should have considered this and all the other mistakes and misleading comments this boy has made. As far as being forestry technicians instead of firefighters yes that does confuse me at some times but it is also very easy to understand. A majority of the time we(wildland firefighters) are doing many other things than fighting fire and if this boy did not understand that when he was hired, he should have quit his first season. As a Montana wildland firefighter, aka forestry tech, with just over 10 seasons of firefighting, I have traveled all throughout the western United States and even into the central states and I must say, with all honesty, that there is no worse place to work as either a private or an agency firefighter than in CA!!! And its not the environment, its not the fuels, and its not the steep loose terrain...it is the people! The people with attitude just like the one in this opinion article. So just so everyone knows, not all wildland firefighters/forestry techs whine like this one does, for the most part we are humble folks who bust ass when need be and strive to do the best we can with any situation that we may face. ONLY federal firefighters receive "HAZARD" pay (which is ridiculous in itself) and the majority of the rest of us enjoy our jobs, know what we signed up for, and are humble enough not to complain about being recognized for every thing we do!

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Posted by dk on 10/30/2013 at 9:52 PM

A fellow fire guy once told me (in regard to wildland firefighting), "sometimes you get paid really well to do NOTHING, and other times you don't get paid nearly enough to do some seriously DIFFICULT and extremely RISKY stuff". In my opinion it all balances out---HOWEVER---with the ever rising cost of living it would be nice to get hourly base wages that reflect this rise. If nothing else we could all use an extra dollar or two added to our hourly base wages---nothing too major and very reasonable considering the modern cost of living.

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Posted by mike on 10/30/2013 at 12:03 PM

I do respect the job wildland firefighters do, but why should tax payers be paying for firefighters to sleep and eat (as well as their "mandatory days off")?? Already many firefighters are getting paid for hours that they aren't even working. Lindon, how often have you actually WORKED for 16 hours in a day? I have also worked as a federal firefighter, and I have been paid for 16 hour days when in reality the actual work time was much less. There are countless other government and non-government workers who are much worse off than federal firefighters. The fire program does not seem to be held accountable for it's spending, and year after year takes money away from other departments (recreation, wilderness, trails, etc.) to pay for it's overspending.

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Posted by Sarah on 10/27/2013 at 6:36 PM

In regard to the comment----that all depends on what level of wildland firefighting job you are refereeing to. An entry level GS-3 position---sure no higher education necessary. However, a GS-7, 8, 9 PLUS fire position is going to require a college degree and in many instances a MASTERS level education will be required. And there are plenty of gov. jobs outside of the wildland fire programs that are entry level and do not require higher education. thanks.

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Posted by sam on 10/25/2013 at 7:45 PM

Wildland firefighting is one of the few government jobs with little or no formal education requirements; not even a high school degree is required for most entry-level work. Not surprising, then, that pay and benefit packages do not compete with urban firefighting agencies that generally require formal post-high fire science education (e.g., 2-year associates degree) and EMT certification.

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Posted by Andy Stahl on 10/24/2013 at 11:33 AM
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