June 18, 2024

(Bloomberg) — In Fairbanks, Alaska, the US Forest Service is looking to hire a smokejumper, a person who parachutes out of a rickety airplane to wrangle wildfires that break out far from roads or rivers. Little experience is necessary; the pay starts at $18.06 per hour.

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Meanwhile, Sadler’s Home Furnishings, with three stores in the Fairbanks area, is offering $21 an hour to shuffle couches in its warehouse. The Best Western on the nearby Chena River will pay $15.50 an hour for a front desk clerk and the University of Alaska needs an administrative assistant at almost $25 an hour — no parachute necessary.

Wage tensions familiar to US restaurants, retailers, schools, hospitals and auto workers are also hitting wildland firefighting, arguably at the worst possible time. On Sept. 30, federal pay increases implemented to shore up squads of forest firefighters — also known as hotshots — are set to expire. Established in late 2021, those provisions bumped base pay to $15 an hour and provided a raise of the lesser of $20,000 or 50% to wildfire firefighters, following some of the worst fire seasons on record.

As the deadline approaches, the good news is that cold weather is nigh and, with it, the traditional end of fire season in the US. The bad news is that climate instability and drought are making wildfires more volatile and less predictable, turning much of the American West into a tinderbox. The circumstances that initially drove the pay increases are unlikely to change anytime soon.

“As the fire seasons get longer, it’s really causing a strain in the wildfire fighting process,” says Cardell Johnson, director of the natural resource and environment team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Everyone seems to be recognizing that climate change is making the issue a lot worse.”

The federal government employs roughly 18,700 people focused on wildfires in various capacities, across five agencies: the Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Not all of those employees are fighting fires directly. But if Congress declines to extend pay increases, experts warn that the ranks of frontline workers will thin before smoke starts billowing again next spring.

“These guys will just go get a construction job or start a tree service company or whatever else,” says Tim Casperson, who left a career in wildfire fighting in 2021 and now covers that space with his newsletter, The Hotshot Wake Up. “The pulse on the industry now is that everyone is just bitter and burned out.”

Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, is hoping to avoid additional fallout. In July, just after the orange haze of Canadian fires descended on Washington, DC, Sinema introduced a bill that would make the 2021 pay bump permanent. In part because of Arizona’s high temperatures, Sinema’s constituents see an inordinate share of Western wildfires, which have increased over the past two decades.

“If we don’t pass this, we will lose wildland firefighters,” Sinema told Bloomberg Green. “The good news is, we all understand that. … I’m confident we have significant bipartisan support to get this done.”

The bill before Congress calls for permanent raises of 1.5% to 42% for all federal employees working on wildland fire, with the largest increases going to the lowest-level staffers. That smokejumper position up in Alaska, for instance, would see a 30% raise — from $18.06 to $23.48 an hour. The legislation would also afford bonuses and mandate time off for dangerous fieldwork.

It’s difficult to conjure a more challenging and screwy labor market than that of wildland firefighting. Most of the jobs are mentally and physically taxing, and include spontaneous weeks in a tent far from home. Over half of federal wildland fire workers are employed for only part of the year, according to the GAO. That means come Thanksgiving, most have to find a plan B.

“On your typical hotshot crew, I’d say probably a third are homeless,” Casperson says. “Then there’s kids who live in mountain towns or people who just want adventure.”

Casperson estimates roughly half of those folks leave the job after a season or two, and another wave cycles out later. The typical scenario: “You’re looking for a house, you’ve been working for the Forest Service for 12 years and you’re still making $18 an hour.”

In a way, being a wildland firefighter is a bit like being a soldier, albeit with a less predictable schedule, less job security and lower pay. Of the permanent jobs in the Forest Service, 70% are paid less than $49,000. “On average, you’ll drive 45,000 miles a year,” says Casperson. “You’ll see nine different states, 24 different forests.”

Despite the instability, US wildfire season has historically provided at least some consistency. Fires smoldered as summer matured and peaked just before the snap of fall. That playbook is less guaranteed in today’s climate reality. Although this year’s fire season has been slow in the US — 43,900 wildfires have burned 2.3 million acres — Canada is having one of its worst seasons ever.

Over the past 20 years, the five-year average of acreage burned in the US has nearly tripled, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. Fires are also getting larger, more frequent and less predictable as drought and volatile weather patterns extend the season into the spring and fall.

That means the West is often burning before firefighters are signed on for the season, or after they’ve been sent home. In 2021, almost half of federal fire personnel worked more than 500 hours of overtime. One worker logged an extra 1,900 hours, according to the GAO — roughly four months of 16-hour days.

“It is widely recognized in the wildland fire community and elsewhere that a new model is needed,” Jeffery Rupert, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, told Congress in June.

Complicating the labor tension, the expanding US fire season is also driving a sort of arms race for talent. Individual states often pay better than the federal government, luring workers away. California, for example, offers fully trained firefighters up to $56,000 a year. As climate change-fueled megafires exacerbate demand, that competition stands to get more fierce. Safety, to some extent, will go to the highest bidder.

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