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Summer fire season nears as many wildland firefighting jobs are vacant

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Summer fire season is almost here, and more than a quarter of the U.S. Forest Service's wildland firefighting jobs are currently vacant. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports this is putting fire managers in the West on edge.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Southwest Idaho is on a U.S. government top-10 list of wildfire crisis zones due to recent droughts in overgrown forests close to a population of half a million people. The Wilderness Ranch subdivision northeast of Boise is accessed by steep, narrow, one way in, one way out dirt roads. There's no cell service. Homes are clustered amidst the pines.

COLTON MCCARTHY: You know, 250 houses just in Wilderness Ranch. You've got 30 some houses up Daggett Creek over there.

SIEGLER: So, it's with trepidation that the young rural fire chief here, Colton McCarthy, looks ahead to another summer of uncertainty. There aren't enough wildland firefighters.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, it's absolutely a concern.

SIEGLER: Across the West, volunteer fire departments like his are often the first to respond when a wildfire ignites. But if it spreads out of control, the federal army of elite hotshot crews, engine captains and air tankers are called in to the rescue - if they're available. McCarthy figures the U.S. Forest Service will probably do what they've been doing lately, cobble together private contractors, bring in firefighters from outside the country.

MCCARTHY: You know, they're from other areas. They go on big, you know, going fires all over the place. They certainly have the experience there, but not necessarily the initial attack experience and the local knowledge.

SIEGLER: As they scramble to hire, federal agencies can at least point to a recent temporary pay bump for firefighters. It was first enacted by President Biden in 2021 and recently extended through September. But the labor crisis has been compounding for at least a decade. Grant Beebe is one of the nation's top fire bosses at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

GRANT BEEBE: Housing is super expensive everywhere in the West. I was just reading a story about flight attendants living out of their cars, you know, working out of the Pacific Northwest. That mirrors what a lot of our firefighters experience. They can afford to take the job, but they can't afford to live in the place they're taking the job.

SIEGLER: In longtime firefighting hubs like Boise, a smokejumper manager might make $66,000 where the median home price is now half a million. In Missoula, Mont., starting wages at a new Amazon warehouse are roughly equivalent to rookie firefighter pay. That's a hard recruiting environment.

LUCAS MAYFIELD: I know more people that are looking for a way out than are looking for a way in.

SIEGLER: Lucas Mayfield is a former hotshot crew boss who now runs the advocacy group, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. He says, in some national forests, the job vacancy rate is far higher than 25%, and particularly troubling is that experienced engine captains, squad leaders, they're leaving.

MAYFIELD: Well, you're losing that talent pool that can make educated and informed on-the-ground decisions that can minimize the impacts of wildland fire.

SIEGLER: Another big reason behind the high attrition is the fact that fire seasons are now year-round. Fire managers like Grant Beebe point out that wildfires are getting more intense and dangerous due to climate change.

BEEBE: Those of us who are in the profession are in it for a reason, you know, but we shouldn't expect people to sacrifice their health, their mental health, their families to do this job, right? We have to make it a better place to work, so that's what we're working hard on.

SIEGLER: There is pressure on Congress to pass a stalled bill that would make the recent pay increases permanent. A lot of firefighters are being asked to do two jobs right now - protect people and property from fire, but also prevent them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five.

SIEGLER: One chilly morning on a hilltop near Boise, crews lit a controlled burn. Lily Barnes is deployed here on a hotshot crew from the nearby Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon.

LILY BARNES: It helps eliminate fine fuels so that if there is a large fire that comes through, they aren't as available.

SIEGLER: The hope is that would slow down an unplanned wildfire before it burns into a town a mile away. The Federal Fire Service is leaning heavily on people like Barnes, who love this job.

BARNES: Yeah, it's rewarding. We're surrounded by highly motivated, intelligent individuals. It's a good team environment.

SIEGLER: It's 14 days on here, three days off, then probably off to an actual wildfire as the West warms.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.