What's the Deal With Wildland Firefighter Pay? Part Two
Hi! This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part HERE. As always, if you learned something here, please consider becoming a paying subscriber and supporting my work. Also, please share this!
Alright friends— so, we left off in the early/mid 1900’s, when the CCC cam into being and provided our federal lands with cheap and ready labor during the great depression.
The Establishment of Hotshot Crews and Stagnant Wildland Firefighter Pay
When I try to find reputable information about the first hotshot crews, I’m confronted with conflicting information. The only repetition is that the first “hotshot” crew was composed of thirty men, or two groups of fifteen, and formed at the site of an old CCC camp in Southern California, possibly near where Del Rosa hotshots is now located, in San Bernardino (thought it wasn’t within the city limits back in the forties).
Del Rosa and El Cariso. Del Rosa and Los Padres. Whatever. The crews aren’t really fighting over who was first, but the first crew was definitely in Southern California, and in 1946 Toby Ortega was the first Superintendent of Del Rosa Hotshots.
Full disclosure, I worked on Del Rosa in 2005. I would have stayed on the crew, were I not a mess of an alcoholic and had my mom’s life not been unraveling. I loved working out of San Bernardino.
So— hotshot crews. Smokejumpers. And eventually type-II crews, engines, and planes left over from WWII. By the 1960’s the wildland firefighting apparatus was well underway, though one could argue that the giant structure of the wildland fire industrial complex started in earnest after the catastrophic fire season on 2000, which burned 7 million acres and was the worst fire season since 1910. After 2000, there was a wave of funding funneled towards new hotshot and type-II crews, equipment, and aircraft to fight wildfires.
Actually, if you look at news reports from 2000, you can see a weird kind of repetition to now….
We’re Here Now.
Now, in 2022, wildland firefighters have only recently gotten their rightful names as firefighters rather than forestry techs. A name means nothing if it’s the only thing that changes, though, and nothing else seems to be changing.
“Eisenhower retook Europe in eleven months; you can’t do a pay raise in seven months? Come on!” -Angus King
When I worked as a hotshot it felt like such a gift to work over a thousand hours of overtime each summer (if we were lucky) and travel (or work an easier job) in the winter. The reality is, even with overtime, I made about $45,000 a summer. Back then that was a lot, especially for six months— but that’s also before taxes, and not taking into account that each summer I sacrificed my entire life. I gave up relationships and hobbies and also sacrificed my bodily health in ways that I’m still paying for.
And that’s with over a thousand hours a summer. What about the summers spent staging or on base, only getting a minimal number of overtime hours?
Something that many people outside of wildland fire don’t realize is that when someone’s working as a wildland firefighter for a federal agency, they’re required to stay within two hours of their home base, so they can have a fast response time if the crew gets called somewhere.
So, even when they have a weekend off, they’re not allowed to stray from their home base— not unless they’ve worked two or three full weeks on a fire and earned their required two days off, and sometimes, if they’re far away enough from home, those two days off are actually done out of state, and then they’re sent out for another roll.
Many state, county, and city fire departments pay portal to portal, which means that firefighters are paid from the moment they leave the station up until they return. this makes sense, and compensates wildland firefighters for what they sacrifice by being away from home.
When Cal Fire began paying portal to portal, they became a lucrative alternative the the USFS in California:
“Cal Fire crews have won a series of 4% to 5% increases in base salary, as well as improved overtime pay, in the last decade. Overtime costs for state firefighters rose an average of 14% a year from 1994 to 2004, according to a report by the legislative analyst.
So attractive is the pay that the defection of federal firefighters to Cal Fire has become a problem for the U.S. Forest Service.
A recent federal analysis found that the average hourly pay of Forest Service firefighters in California was greater than the state rate, but that staffing formulas guarantee Cal Fire crews more hours and therefore higher annual pay. State fire captains earn an average of $94,644, about $18,000 more than their Forest Service peers.
‘I don’t begrudge them a dime of it,’ said Bill Robertson, Cal Fire’s director of management services. ‘You’ve got guys doing grueling work. If you’ve got a firefighter out there 13 days . . . risking life and limb, I think they deserve it.’
Unlike federal crews, who typically sleep in tents or trailers while on wildfires, Cal Fire crews routinely stay in motels or hotels under terms of their labor agreement. ‘I’m completely unapologetic about that,’ said Terry McHale, policy director for the CDF Firefighters union, which represents 6,500 state firefighters and for decades has retained one of California’s most powerful lobbying firms, Aaron Read & Associates.” -LA TIMES, 2008
When I worked on the hotshots in California, we used to make fun of the Cal Fire firefighters because they were “lazy.” But they weren’t necessarily lazy. They were just being paid better, and treated with dignity.
Why is it taking so long to raise federal firefighter pay?
Well, there are theories. It certainly isn’t budgetary. The Biden administration has distributed millions of dollars of its infrastructure bill to nonprofits throughout the United States. Yet, just yesterday, this happened:
In my opinion, it’s criminal to promise firefighters higher pay before what promises to be another intense fire season, and then drag your feet on getting that pay sent out. In the above video, Randy Moore says he “hopes” to have deserved paychecks into bank accounts by the end of June. Then, Senator Masto of Nevada calls him out on his flimsy language and forces him to definitively say that these checks will be in the bank.
I’ll believe it when I see it.
Why do you think it’s taking so long? Share your thoughts below.
California is still short over a thousand firefighters, according to Buzzfeed News.
Senator Wyden sounds that alarm on the wildland firefighter shortage.