Low Wages: A Wildland Firefighter Speaks Out

Excerpts from an op-ed essay in the Sunday, April 18 edition of The Oregonian, by Ben Elkind (subscription), entitled “More Fires, Less Staffing, and Low Pay Taking Steep Toll on Wildland Firefighters.”

“I would almost do it for free. The feeling of complete focus and calm after jumping out of the airplane is hard to find elsewhere these days. But the chaos from life and the fire below are making me rethink my career, and that’s a big problem for Oregonians.

“I’ve been a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service for eight years and worked on the Mt. Hood Hotshot Fire Crew before that. I grew up in Oregon and can’t stand to see the wildfires ravaging our public lands and communities, while the smoke threatens our public health.”

“As the cost of living and home prices rise in the west, the Forest Service can no longer retain its employees when starting pay is $13.45 an hour. At the Lincoln City McDonald’s, just west of Otis, another community nearly erased from the map by wildfires, a sign in the window advertised starting pay is $15 an hour. My wife joked that I should apply there for more job security. She’s right. A career with McDonald’s is currently more promising than federal wildland firefighting.

“I’m an incident commander with advanced qualifications, supervising dozens of resources and fire crews on fires, yet I’ve never earned more than $20 an hour in my 14 years as a professional wildland firefighter. I make decisions that can cost millions of dollars with lives hanging in the balance, yet I am paid more like a teenager working a summer job than a highly experienced professional.”

Elkind makes some good points, but overtime and hazard pay can make for a big boost in pay.


8 thoughts on “Low Wages: A Wildland Firefighter Speaks Out”

  1. Natural resource pay is quite low in general, and firefighter pay has been notoriously low – I have been amazed at the low pay grades for federal fire fighters given the level of responsibility that they have. It all goes back to how the job description is written and rated. Three of my siblings work in the corporate world – their individual annual bonuses are more than my annual pay as a federal forester. Yet when I have taken them in the field with me to show them what I do, they cannot believe how little I am paid given the responsibility that I have – and the degree to which I have to rely on personal expertise that cannot come from a book or a class. I had never thought of that because I just liked what I was doing, so it is always interesting to see it from another perspective.

  2. The last sentence sums up reality. After 35 seasons of Wildland Fire Fighting, I didn’t quit because of the low wages, I quit because of the wasted money and being tired of watching natural resources being unnecessarily being destroyed. Myself and hundreds more lived for fires season and project fires because that was the “Money Season”. Federal crews, in particular Hot Shots, rarely sign out with less than 16hrs a day on their time cards for 15-21 days, rest 2 days, then another 15. They get Hazard pay until the fire is declared controlled and some even after. Today fires are milked long past when they should be controlled because of the additional hazard pay received, especially by overhead that are often have positions that are not eligible for overtime except on fires. Wildland Fire has become an annual 3.3 + Billion Dollar industry, where quick and aggressive suppression has taken a back seat to prolonged, extended attack, “big box” project fires, that destroy millions of acres and often result in conflagrations when Mother Nature throws a wind event into the mix.

  3. As a current FS employee, I agree with the broad outlines of this article but, four added considerations need to be taken into account.
    1. like the commenter above points out, federal NR pay is quite low in general,

    2. like the poster included, the OT and hazard really make up a huge monetary chunk of the actual year to year compensation of the employees with primary fire jobs.

    3. The pacific coastal regions are in a different situation than some other parts of the country, at least based on my anecdotal experience – low base pay harms the ability of the FS to retain folks versus, say, Cal Fire, but in rural AZ or NM, FS jobs are among the most desirable opportunities.

    4. Fire IMTs are preposterously expensive already – to say nothing of the fact that non-fire budgets continue to decline even with the so-called “fire funding fix”

    So, when you take these into account, the situation starts to get more complex than just raising the base rate for Federal employees, at least nationwide. Unless you want to continue to turn the FS (particularly the national forest system branch) into an agency that has little capacity besides firefighting.

    Not sure I have a solution, but a few anecdotes that may help to illustrate where this gets more complex:

    – In rural, non-coastal areas with a comparatively lower cost of living, my experience was that the highest-earning folks on the forest, aside from maybe your line officers, were career fire folks, usually but not exclusively those in overhead roles as FMO or Forest duty officers.

    – Among those folks, there was a considerable propensity to, frankly, milk every bit of overtime on the justification that fire is poorly paid, which is true for some, but not all, personnel. Not everyone getting full fire suppression overtime is underpaid, and there’s effectively no scrutiny on that difference, as far as I can tell.

    – Management teams are often rather wasteful. When PLs are high in an area, pre-positioning and calling in teams often starts to sink massive costs before there is even an incident to respond to. I understand the logic behind this, but when the justification is

    – “Resource management” fires (i.e. natural ignition managed like a prescribed fire), or whatever you want to call them, often accomplished good fuel management objectives but were a sink for fire suppression overtime despite not actually being suppression work.

    – At the ground level, fire has the most funding, most personnel, most expensive equipment, most justification for charging overtime, etc. Not saying that it shouldn’t given the risks and needs of the job, but fire is so, so much better funded than the rest of the FS that increases in firefighter compensation (perhaps necessary esp. at lower GS levels) need to come with something other than yet more gutting of the rest of the agency.

    – One of the biggest costs in firefighting is fleet and vehicle stuff. Given the specialization of a fire apparatus, this is probably unavoidable to some degree, but the rest of the FS at the field level is trying to fight for old hold-over vehicles slated for sale while national programs like “engine module standardization” add 50,000+ dollar chase trucks to every type 6 module even though the brand-new dodge engines already have more than enough seating for the staffing level of a type 6 module. The example here is that I think fire programs and their budgets are often uncritically given a green light while the rest of the FS gets told to tighten the belt.

    Accordingly, a few thoughts:
    – Would higher base pay for many of the on-the-ground firefighters necessitate a reduction in the rate of return on overtime and hazard pay, particularly for folks over a certain GS level.

    – Greater accountability with the use of overtime and hazard generally. I’m not sure what that looks like beyond the above, in that high GS levels getting full fire suppression overtime should probably be reduced.

    – Greater scrutiny on fire spending on teams and equipment alike. Having worked in various parts of government, federal and state, I realize that calls for scrutiny and accountability are often vague and useless, but my (anecdotal) impression is that fire management in the FS, at the district and forest level, is often too close for comfort to the stereotypes of wasteful government spending. People making purchases with nominal justification for things they don’t actually need, but want, seems not uncommon within fire programs. Examples would be the whole fire staff “needing” the latest fashions in fire pants (the Crewboss kevlar-like mix, for example) getting “better” tires when, on the basis of nothing but opinion, you don’t like the ones your FMO truck came with even though they only have 10k miles, buying firing tools that are seldom used or seldom used effectively in your local conditions (thinking of a certain type of truck-mounted PSD firing device here).

  4. I’ve been saying for many years that the Federal Agencies need to hire permanent seasonal ‘Super-Techs’, who have varied skills, to accomplish many tasks, as long as work is available. Ranger Districts used to have timber people who had fire qualifications, even on the marking crew. There’s no reason why a Botany person couldn’t also respond to wildfires. There’s also no reason why a firefighter couldn’t help in Hydrology (or other fields), with training.

    Such employees should make a good wage, based on merit. In the Tech Industry, those kinds of employees are indispensable and well-compensated, because they aren’t a full time employee. Developing and keeping those crew bosses and engine captains is very important, IMHO.

  5. I may add more comments later but folks, please remember that “destroyed” is in the eye of the beholder and in the case of ecosystems in the existence of the species that comprise a particular ecosystem, plant community, etc. I get a wee bit rankled by the it’s “destroyed” narrative.
    I worked 6 summers as a wildland firefighter for the USFS and NPS and my Pulaski was my best friend and I’ve hiked through lots of burned areas in the past 25 years so I’ve been around fire in Regions 5 & 6 of the USFS.

    I spent May 18, 1980 driving FS roads in the area about 10 miles east of the on-going Mt. St. Helens eruption. I was up at Old Man Pass in the Gifford Pinchot NF by 1030; approx. 2 hours after the volcano started its massive eruption. The pass is roughly half way between Mt. Adams and St. Helens.
    At the time, as part of my USFS forester job, I did the Public Info Officer duties on the ranger district where I worked.
    I remember vividly all of the rather sensational, “everything’s destroyed” news coverage in the early aftermath of the May 18th eruption yet within a few years it was obvious that many species had survived the blast and thus not all was destroyed. Devastated looking? Yes. Not the forested landscape you used to camp in? Yes.

    Destroyed? Definitely NO! One primary example was that the lateral blast to the north blew down many acres of trees; the root wads acted as heat shields to protect salal, ferns and lots of other plant species from the heat of the blast. Plus there was part of the winter snowpack on those root wads.
    If you think in terms of 2×4 studs then you may think a forest is destroyed by a high intensity fire.
    On the other hand, if you think in long terms about ecosystem and landscape processes then you’re more likely to see rejuvenation.
    Seeing the recovery following the St. Helens’ eruption certainly opened my eyes to the resilience of ecosystems.

  6. When I see an rare, ancient port orford cedar forest burned twice and only low brush left, I think the term destroyed fits when applied to the forest that was there for hundreds of years. I know change happens. I just miss the old forest.

    • Seconded Bob. I don’t know what the situation is in Oregon but we’re loosing thousands of acres of forest a year in California. Much of what burns regenerates as shrubfields or hardwoods. As an ecologist I appreciate successional dynamics, but as a forester I appreciate even more the societal value of forests.

    • Similarly, hundreds of giant sequoias perished in fires last year, too. Even more remain at risk, as the southern Sierra Nevada has no options left for fire resilience. I guess one could now say that thinning projects are unneeded in those forests, now. (Unless “hopes and prayers” is still considered a viable option)


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