Fire militia training

A U.S. Forest Service fire militia that includes wildlife biologists, wilderness rangers and recreation specialists training on June 10 with forest fire crews in the North Fork Tuolumne River watershed near Long Barn to support firefighting efforts this summer.

Fire season is here, and while recent fire seasons have been getting longer, hotter, more severe, more deadly, and more destructive, the Stanislaus National Forest is now operating with just 75% of its full contingent for fire staffing, in part because other fire agencies offer better pay and benefits than the U.S. Forest Service.

As of Tuesday, the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region page for Stanislaus National Forest fire jobs listed 79 vacancies, including seven vacant hotshot jobs in Sonora and Buck Meadows; 11 handcrew openings at Pinecrest and Dorrington; four helitack openings at Bald Mountain; and more than 45 engine openings at a dozen locations, including Long Barn, Cottonwood, Brightman, Dry Meadow, and Cherry.

As of this week, starting pay for federal hotshot wildland firefighter jobs in California on a USA Jobs website started at $15.10 an hour, just above the state’s minimum hourly wage of $14. Starting pay for GS-3 level firefighters in California is as low as $28,078 annually, or $13.49 an hour, below the state’s minimum wage.

Earlier this month, the service staged fire militia training in the North Fork Tuolumne River watershed near Long Barn for Stanislaus National Forest employees like wildlife biologists, wilderness rangers, and recreation specialists to train with forest fire crews and complete basic training in case they need to support firefighting efforts this summer.

A number of longtime employees with the Stanislaus National Forest, including some nearing retirement who don’t want their names published, say their stations are lacking engine crews, they are understaffed, there is poor retention of employees, engine crews work five days instead of seven days a week, and they wonder if the agency is now compromised.

“It’s a challenging conversation,” Jason Kuiken, the Sonora-based supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, said when asked last week whether fire staffing is falling short this summer.

Kuiken was about 180 miles west of Sonora on Friday doing strategic risk assessments on the Willow Fire south of King City in Monterey County. He referred questions to public information staff and the service’s Pacific Southwest Region headquarters in the Bay Area.

Traci Allen, a Forest Service spokeswoman based in El Dorado County, and acting public affairs officer for the Stanislaus National Forest, confirmed on Friday that Stanislaus National Forest fire staffing is 25% short this summer.

“Typically we do have 12 engines,” Allen said in a phone interview. “Currently, for 2021, we have nine engines, with five people per engine working five days a week each. Hotshot crews, we are fully staffed. We have two hotshot crews. We have three 10-person hand crews, two dozers, and one helicopter, one helitack crew.”

The forest has three fire lookout stations and those stations are staffed, Allen said.

A full contingent of firefighting personnel for Stanislaus National Forest is about 175 to 180, so the forest is roughly 45 firefighters short at the moment.

“We are not fully staffed this year, because it's really based on hiring efforts,” Allen said. “It's a competitive market out there. Other fire agencies will pay more than we do.”

Some firefighters would rather work in a more urban area as opposed to remote, Allen said.

“It’s a challenge being able to hire,” she said. “Other agencies have better benefits and better pay. The Forest Service realizes that this is a concern — to be competitive, to retain fire personnel — because the fire season in California is year-round, so that is a challenge.”

Allen tried to emphasize positives for shorthanded Stanislaus National Forest fire crews. The fire organization for the forest is working with and will continue to work with its partners, to maximize its resources and collective strength, with Cal Fire and other agencies. 

“We're committed to suppressing fire and the safety of our communities,” she said. “Here's the situation the forest is in: We do have partners to work with, and we can leverage our resources. We have collective strength working with other fire organizations in the communities.”

Allen said she couldn’t provide an answer when asked what the service is doing to address firefighting staffing shortages, and whether its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will increase hiring incentives, because it was a “national-level question.”

Fire staffing statewide for national forests in California is also down by more than 300 firefighting positions, though the overall percentage for understaffing in national forests statewide is not as short as it is in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Paul Wade, spokesman for the service’s Pacific Southwest Region in Vallejo, said Tuesday that firefighting staffing for this year in the region, which includes 18 national forests in California, was at approximately 94% as of June 1.

Wade said 4,354 of 4,620 planned fire personnel positions have been filled, and summer hiring will continue until mid-July. The service will also try to bolster firefighting contingent strength with administratively determined hiring, which will increase the number of firefighters. Administratively determined hires are hired locally on an as-needed basis to fill gaps in permanent and temporary positions, but they are not part of official personnel counts. 

The service typically brings on 500 to 1,000 administratively determined hires each fire season, Wade said. 

“We are working with our agency and USDA leadership, elected officials, and the Office of Personnel Management to evaluate options to modernize the firefighting workforce compensation structure, including job series, pay grade levels, and other changes,” he said. “We have experienced staffing challenges as a result of issues such as compensation, remote and hard to fill duty stations, a competitive employment market, and the physical and mental stress of year-round fire conditions on fire personnel. These challenges are not new, and this year’s firefighting capacity in the Pacific Southwest Region is comparable to the past several years.”

This summer, the service will rely on “the collective strength” of the wildland firefighting system that has access to national agency and interagency resources, including resources from a wide range of federal, tribal, state, local, and international partners, Wade said.

Wade added that all Californians can be assured that the service, other federal agencies, tribal, state, and local partners stand together, ready to respond to wildfire during the fire season.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, whose Congressional District Four includes the Mother Lode and all of the 1,400-square-mile Stanislaus National Forest, placed the blame largely on enhanced unemployment benefits as part of a COVID-19 relief package that he opposed.

“This is a problem that is across all sectors of the economy: enhanced unemployment benefits are causing a severe labor shortage in entry-level positions,” he said on Wednesday.

Current unemployment benefits are the equivalent of a $32,000 annual salary, “for a job that gives you 365 days a year off and you are your own boss,” McClintock said, attributing his assertion to the Bank of America.

“Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labor,” he said.

Until current enhanced unemployment benefits are repealed, or until they expire in September, they will continue to be a problem, McClintock said.

“This is one of the principle reasons I voted against these enhanced benefits,” he said. “Once the labor market returns to normal, then we can determine a wage that will fill those vacancies.”

McClintock added that the service has had a 36% increase in inflation-adjusted funding over the past decade. The current shortfall in federal firefighter staffing is a government-induced labor shortage, not a funding issue, he said.

Regardless of the reasons for fire personnel staffing shortages, they hurt Stanislaus National Forest efforts to reduce fuels and chances of more devastating mega-blazes like the 2013 Rim Fire, said John Buckley, a former Forest Service firefighter and current executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte.

“If the USFS is going to meaningfully increase fuel reduction treatments to reduce destructive wildfires, then Congress needs to significantly increase USFS fire and fuels staffing,” Buckley said. “As part of two forest stakeholder committees, I can share that there is strong agreement that the USFS is understaffed and not capable at present to do all the work the agency agrees is needed to be done. They definitely don’t have enough prescribed fire capacity.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.