This story was originally published in High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Zack Bashoor had 19 years.He was only years old when Bashoor joined the US Forest Service to fight wildfires in Montana. Bashoor was a firefighter at the time. But after three summers running chainsaws, digging trenches to blazes and covering structures with protective wrap, he decided to change his career and become a resource forester in a lumber mill. Many of his peers left firefighting, too, citing the industry’s toxic workforce culture and low compensation for a physically demanding job with a risk of injury or occasionally, death.
“There’s this conundrum where a lot of brilliant young people come in and they eventually end up leaving,” Bashoor said. “They find something better to do that isn’t as dangerous and pays a little more money. There were very limited paths to permanent employment.”
But that might be changing, thanks to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure billThe Wildland Firefighter Salary Increase Program will increase wages and make some positions available year-round. The $1.2 trillion legislationBiden signed the law into force establishing the. Monday, includes $3.3 billion for wildfire management. While wildfire is a natural—and necessary—part of a healthy ecosystem, the more severe megafires of recent years are becoming increasingly common and destructive—fueled in part by climate change, as well as by fire suppression.
The legislation will not only improve incentives for wildland firefighters but also work to make forests more sustainable. more resilient to fire and curb its damaging effects by allocating $500 million each to thinning projects, planning and conducting prescribed fires, developing and improving fuel breaks where fires can be stopped or lulled, and mapping and defending at-risk communities. It also funds projects such as fire science research, real-time monitoring equipment and restoration treatments on federal and tribal land with a “very high” wildfire potential.
“It is encouraging to see additional funding being made available for restoration and climate- and wildfire-adaptation of forest ecosystems where the exclusion of fire over the past century has contributed to the vulnerability of current conditions to drought and wildfire,” Keala Hagmann, a research ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Washington, wrote in an email. Hagmann said it was “particularly encouraging” to see language in the bill that supports thinning and timber harvesting in an “ecologically appropriate” manner in order to retain large trees, along with timelines for monitoring progress and effects.
Large-scale funding is long past due, according to Lenya Quin-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Humboldt County, and the director of Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “It’s time to radically increase the scale of the work we’re doing,” she said. “We’ve never seen the investments we need to get ahead. It’s important for us to dump huge amounts of funding on this work and build the workforce to do it.”
The infrastructure bill is essential to support this workforce. It is essential to increase the pay of wildland firefighters in order to boost retention and improve the morale of federal employees who are often underemployed. lured away by higher-paying state, local and private industry. There are now a shortage of firefighters common in recent years even as fire seasons grow longer and more destructive. Some workers struggle with homelessness and economic uncertainty.
Many seasonal firefighters are classified as “forestry technicians” on paper, but the bill creates a new role—actually called “wildland firefighter”—that comes with a base pay raise of $20,000 or 50 percent of the starting salary, whichever is less. Wildfire Today reports that a rookie firefighter whose previous base pay was $28,000—before overtime and hazard pay, which significantly bump up earnings at the end of a season—would see their base pay jump to $42,000. This could have real implications for entry-level firefighters, and could help the Forest Service retain people like Bashoor. The bill also aims to convert at most 1,000 federal wildland firefighters into year-round employees. It also provides money for the establishment of mental health programs, such as treatment for post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s important to note that the infrastructure bill doesn’t put money into bank accounts today or tomorrow. It does authorize future Congresses, however, to appropriate $3.3 million for wildfire risk mitigation efforts over several years. And appropriation doesn’t always equal implementation. Andy Stahl—a forester who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, an Oregon forestry trade association and numerous conservation groups and is now the executive director of the nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics—thinks it will be hard to hire people for the newly funded projects given current labor shortages. “I don’t know who these people are that Congress thinks are just beating down the doors saying, ‘This is the job I want,’ or are beating down the doors saying they want any job at all,” Stahl said.
Experts agree that the allocations are a good starting point, but not enough given the scale of megafires in 21st century. Matt Wibbenmeyer of Resources for the Future, an environmental economist, stated that the infrastructure bill addressed some of the issues facing fire management agencies. However, more money is needed. For example, the Forest Service by itself estimates it needs $5 billion to $6 billion a year over the next 10 years to reduce flammable forest fuels in high priority areas—more than the bill allocates for many years. As the clock ticks, climate change continues to prime more forests for ignitions with hotter, drier summers. “It’s a step in the right direction, but what we really need here is an order of magnitude increase in how much of this risk reduction we’re investing in,” Wibbenmeyer said. “I think we have to get used to the fact that climate change is going to be expensive.”