By mid-September, there was no one left to call. The West, with its thousands of federal, state and local fire engines and crews, had been tapped out.
Wildfires across the West had consumed the labor of all available wildland firefighters, and though there were fewer fires burning, those fires were larger and more difficult to contain. They consumed 13 million acres — an area almost the size of West Virginia.
In the midst of the 2020 wildfire season, John Phipps, the Forest Service’s deputy chief, told Congress that this “was an extraordinary year and it broke the system. The system was not designed to handle this.”
Draining the national wildland firefighting pool was why my fire crew and I had to work longer and harder than usual on the Idaho-Oregon border. We were fighting the Woodhead fire, which had peaked at 85,000 acres and threatened to burn the developed areas around the towns of Cambridge and Council, Idaho.
With only three crews to try to contain a fire that required probably ten crews, it meant day and night shifts for 14 days. Each crew found itself with miles of fire line to construct and hold. With not enough person-power, we were always trying to do more with less, and it was no comfort to know that what we faced was not unique.
Across the nation, the large fires meant working in hazardous conditions that called for far more workers than were available. For those of us on the line, it came down to little sleep and a heavy workload, combined with insufficient calories and emotional and physical exhaustion.
Fighting wildfires week after week takes a toll on the body. Smoke contains carcinogens, and firefighters spend days exerting themselves immersed in air thick with ash. We all figure that the long-term health effects cannot be good.
One of my co-workers confessed that he goes to sleep “with pain in my knees and hands,” and added, “I wake up with pain in my lungs and head.” Over a six-to-eight month fire season, minor injuries can become chronic pain.
Wildland firefighters are also vulnerable to suicide due to job-related stress and the lack of resources outside of the fire season. Long assignments put a strain on firefighters’ families and can damage relationships. A 2018 psychological study, conducted by Florida State University, reported that 55% of wildland firefighters experienced “clinically significant suicidal symptoms,” compared to 32% for structural firefighters.
Wildland firefighters who work for federal agencies, such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, are classified as “Range” Technicians” or “Forestry Technicians” — a title more suitable for golf course workers than people wearing heavy packs and working a fire line.
Calling them “technicians” negates the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to work with wildfire. Most firefighters sign contracts as seasonal “1039s,” agreeing to work 1,039 base hours for $12-$16 an hour. This is one hour short of being defined as a temporary worker who is eligible for benefits such as retirement and year-round health care.
Overtime work is what allows “technicians” to pay the bills, but once they reach 1,039 base hours some firefighters are laid off even while the fire season continues and their regions continue to burn.
There is a remedy in sight: the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, which formally identifies wildland firefighters as exactly that, tossing out the technician term and recognizing the “unusual physical hardship of the position.”
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines introduced the bill last year, and recently, California Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa introduced the bill in the House. Co-sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, the bill currently sits with the House Oversight and Reform Committee. This is a nonpartisan bill that deserves support from every Westerner.
We all know fires will continue to burn throughout the West, but right now many of the men and women who fight those fires on our behalf are suffering from burnout. Addressing wildfires as a national priority starts with recognition of the profession fighting them.
Harrison Raine is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He started fighting wildfires in 2016 and is a recent graduate of Colorado College.