Tom McClintock

Firefighters online and across the United States have weighed in to criticize U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, for a remark the Mother Lode congressman made in a July 1 Union Democrat article, that wildfire firefighting “is not skilled labor.”

His remark first appeared in the July 1 edition of The Union Democrat in a story about how the Stanislaus National Forest is 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.

McClintock tried to clarify his remark in a letter to the editor that appeared in the July 10 edition of the newspaper. Firefighters have continued a firestorm of criticism online and contacted The Union Democrat to criticize the first apology.

Asked Friday for response to the mounting criticism he has received and the criticism of his July 10 letter to the editor, McClintock said, “It was a poor choice of words, for which I apologize.”

“As I hope I made clear in my follow-up letter to the editor, I was not referring to the professional firefighters who undergo extensive training and whose devotion to public safety has saved our lives, homes and communities time and again,” McClintock said. “And yes, I certainly recognize that our seasonal firefighters are also extensively trained and certified for the grueling and dangerous work they undertake.

“I was wrong to phrase my answer as I did. I was simply trying to explain that the recruitment problem has been aggravated by conflicting labor policy that is keeping an estimated seven million workers out of the workforce. I am afraid that as long as enhanced unemployment benefits pay more, it will be very difficult to fill the positions we will need this fire season.”

An Illinois-based YouTube vlogger who calls himself Fire Department Chronicles has a video post titled “Representative calls Wildland Firefighters ‘Unskilled Laborers’?!?” that has received more than 120,500 views, 10,000 likes, 43 dislikes, and 1,176 comments as of Friday afternoon.

A Reddit post titled “‘Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labor,’. - U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock” had more than 85 comments.

This week, an Idaho-based blogger for GoGonzoJournal.com has a post titled “Congressman’s District Ablaze After Calling Wildland Firefighters Unskilled,” a reference to the Beckwourth Complex fires that have burned more than 100,000 acres since June 30 in the Plumas National Forest in Plumas County, which borders the Golden State’s Congressional District 4 that McClintock represents. 

More than 2,470 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the Beckwourth Complex as of Friday.

In addition, wildland firefighter families in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado, have contacted The Union Democrat to criticize McClintock’s letter to the editor published July 10, in which the congressman stated, “An interview I gave last week with the Union Democrat has been misconstrued as disparaging the training and skill of our wildland firefighters, and this is the last thing I intended or meant. The specific question I was answering involved recruiting entry level and seasonal workers at the minimum wage given the severe labor shortage caused by enhanced unemployment benefits. This is the context in which I used the term ‘not skilled.’ Removed from the original question, some have interpreted my answer as referring broadly to the profession and those who serve, which I had no intention of suggesting.”

Crystal Brothers, 38, of Marion in western Kentucky, whose husband is a state forest ranger and a federal wildland firefighter, criticized McClintock’s comments in the July 1 article and his July 10 letter.

Brothers’ husband, Chad Brothers, 46, is a Kentucky Division of Forestry ranger, with duties including wildland firefighting for the state of Kentucky, as well as temporary federal wildland firefighting assignments in western states working for the U.S. Forest Service.

Even the most basic, entry level position requires hours of classes and field training to earn the qualification required to be a wildland firefighter, Crystal Brothers said. 

“Even entry level firefighters have had the minimum training and courses,” she said. “Even entry level firefighters are requested from other states because they have the qualification required.”

Crystal Brothers said entry level wildland firefighters must have Firefighter Type 2 qualifications that include the courses Introduction to the Incident Command System; Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service; Firefighter Training; Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior; and National Incident Management System, An Introduction. 

An entry level wildland firefighter must also pass an arduous work capacity test also known as the pack test, a three-mile walk over level terrain, in 45 minutes or less, carrying a 45-pound pack, Crystal Brothers said, citing minimum requirements of the multi-federal agency National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Entry level federal wildland firefighters are listed as general schedule employees at least GS-02, Crystal Brothers said. The red card is a national, colloquial term referring to an Incident Qualification Card.

“My point is there are three classes and field training all firefighters have to do before you can get your wildland firefighter red card,” she said in a phone interview this week.

According to the Occupational Information Network, developed under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, the duties of wildland firefighters can include assessing fires and situations and reporting conditions to superiors to receive instructions, using two-way radios; moving toward sources of fires, using knowledge of types of fires, construction design, building materials, and physical layout of properties; and rescuing victims from burning buildings, accident sites, and water hazards.

McClintock should contact a representative from the U.S. Forest Service, or a local wildland fire crew, “and get a better understanding of what the job entails, even for seasonal, temporary, and/or entry level firefighters,” Crystal Brothers said.

“His confusion is in his belief that entry level doesn’t require training, or that seasonal employees are all entry level,” she said.

Philip McGill, 62, of Holt, Michigan, is a paid on-call lieutenant EMT-firefighter with Windsor Township Emergency Services and has worked in firefighting since 1982. His son, Jacob McGill, 26, is a U.S. Forest Service forest fire technician, level GS-5, with four years of federal wildland firefighting in Michigan, Indiana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado. 

The McGills said in interviews this week that entry level and seasonal wildland firefighters must have minimum qualifications and they, too, are skilled workers.

“The congressman has it all wrong,” Philip McGill said. “He’s trying to backpedal out of his mistake, saying they are unskilled labor. They’re skilled. The minimum standards on the job application require they state and document their training.”

Philip McGill said his son has a four-year bachelor’s degree in fire science from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, with a minor in forest management and has worked about a dozen major fires in the past four years without any injuries on the job.

Jacob McGill, a mid-level, squad-leader equivalent, on a temporary federal work assignment with a helitack crew in Rifle, Colorado, said this week in a phone interview that he and his co-workers were disappointed when they saw McClintock’s comments from the story on Facebook. 

“It is true that even for entry level wildland firefighters, there’s 30 to 40 hours of classwork and about eight hours of field work with hands-on experience,” he said. “Yes, they are skilled labor.”

McClintock said Friday he would support “all necessary funding to assure that we can protect our mountain communities from the mega-fires we expect this season as an emergency appropriation.”

The Energy Infrastructure Act currently in the Senate is part of a broader $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure proposal that would appropriate $600 million for federal wildland firefighters to increase their salaries by $20,000 a year and convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighters to permanent, year-round positions. 

Asked whether he would support the Energy Infrastructure Act, McClintock said, “the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill … has very little to do with firefighting. I believe it would cause enormous damage to the economy and greatly increase the inflationary spiral that the administration’s spending has already ignited.”

The bill also contains $3.3 billion for hazardous fuels reduction, controlled burns, community wildfire defense grants, and collaborative landscape forest restoration projects, and funding for firefighting resources; $2 billion for the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service to carry out and fund ecological restoration projects on public and private lands; and $5 billion for utilities and grid operators to bury power lines and install fire-resistant technologies to reduce wildfires and expand the use of electricity microgrids to reduce disturbances caused by voluntary power shutoffs.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said that in 2020, wildfires in California burned 4.4 million acres, claimed 33 lives, and destroyed 5,500 homes. Record-dry conditions mean this year could be even worse, with nearly 4,000 fires already having burned 18,500 acres.

“By raising federal firefighter salaries by $20,000 a year and transitioning at least 1,000 positions from seasonal to permanent, this bill would go a long way toward solving this pay gap problem,” Feinstein said last week. “Lowering the risk of wildfires is a critical infrastructure investment, and I’m grateful this plan recognizes that need.”

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