Staffing Shortages in Wildfire Suppression and What Would You Do About It?

I’d be interested in what current employees think of this fairly extensive BuzzFeed article on fire staffing. Tagline:

US Forest Service deputy chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera’s statements on staffing have sparked confusion among lawmakers and outrage from wildland firefighters, who say she overpromised what they can deliver.

Clearly we have an outrage shortage in our communities that needs to be remedied as soon as possible…

Based on the article, the FS and other agencies have serious problems with staffing. I don’t think attacking the Deputy Chief for being not having the details of ongoing hiring events is really going to help; but maybe I’m missing something.

As a result, large swaths of the drought-stricken Southwest are now facing a critical shortage of much-needed experienced personnel. Plus, some regions have been unable to share resources with others during emergencies as is normally the case, Forest Service employees told BuzzFeed News.

“This is worse than other years. We are getting crushed on the hiring front,” the official told BuzzFeed News. “Unless there’s a major system overhaul, our land management agencies’ fire programs could be extinct in the next 10 to 20 years.”

In Washington, fire crews have more than 50 midlevel positions open and will be unable to staff eight engines due to a lack of firefighters, according to meeting notes from a fire management officer call on April 11. Rachel Granberg, who works at the Forest Service’s Okanogan-Wenatchee station, said 21% of her unit is unstaffed, and for an unprecedented second year in a row, they cannot use an engine.

“That’s huge. Engines bring water. In plain terms, if we can’t bring water, it’s very hard to keep small fires small,” she laid out. “And that’s alarming.”

Clearly the FS has problems. If I had interviewed the FS folks, I would have asked “if you were the FS, what would you do differently?” “this year?” “over time?”

6 thoughts on “Staffing Shortages in Wildfire Suppression and What Would You Do About It?”

  1. I would also guess that there will be an upheaval of personnel, with people going other places, for better opportunities and higher pay. I think that the Forest Service made their bed, and they’re not finding it particularly comfortable. If you no longer have enough expertise, what can you do?

    Maybe develop expertise in the form of ‘Super Techs’, who can do multiple kinds of tasks, like timber, wildlife surveys, cultural surveys, firefighting, project monitoring, etc. And pay those people what they are worth.

  2. Per hiring challenges: I know I sound like a broken record, but I will never stop beating this drum. The USFS prefers to start at the end rather than the beginning with hiring practices. A robust education program for pre-K through grade 12 would greatly assist the Forest Service in so many ways including developing an interest among a diversity of students to pursue land management careers. By working with teachers to get kids outside at young ages to have safe, fun experiences to teaching high school students both indoors and in the outdoor classroom, the USFS could increase environmental literacy and develop an interest in land management careers. Only attending high school and college career fairs does not effectively stimulate that interest. I don’t know how many times I was told the USFS doesn’t know how to do education. Well, the USFS doesn’t know how to do forestry either, the agency hires foresters to do the work. In my opinion, it is much more important for multiple use land management agencies such as the USFS and BLM to be involved with pre-K – 12 education than the NPS and FWS.

    • Mike, I think the FS had some programs like that to attract diverse candidates at least in some places. I’m thinking maybe Region 8? Does anyone else remember these? I wonder whether they are still ongoing.

  3. Clearly FS Management has missed the boat, or perhaps they didn’t even know it was leaving. It’s hard to have much sympathy for a leader as misinformed as in this case. There are both long term and short term factors at play for the issue of unfilled field going positions.

    For the FS, for the last 20 years of the last century they did a pretty good job of selling off much of their capacity to house seasonal employees because of flat or declining budgets and the need to get some field work done. As I look around here in rural NM, where a few fires are burning, there is literally no affordable housing anywhere.

    The past few Pandemic years have taken their toll on our cultural fabric, so much so that a lot of our lives are in upheaval. If your family or friends have had experience with Covid ( I recently spent time in the hospital, had a niece who died) you question everything, including why or where you, your friends or family might seek employment. I have 2 sons, after past years of seeing me only occasionally during fire/field season, have made choices that put them home with their loved ones every night year around, and for much better pay, both of them with natural resource education and fire experience, who can blame them?

  4. I agree, Tom, many things have changed over time, both within and without the FS. But federal agencies find it hard to be agile, as so much needs to be cleared with so many people including the often-not-very-helpful other agencies and the US Congress.

    So clearly they need to change.. but how exactly? Build employee housing/RV parks on FS land? Pay people more? What else?


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