The story of American wildland firefighters is evident from the geography of the American West. Whether it’s the lush evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest or the towering Giant Sequoias of California, their beauty often bears the scars of fires and the resting places of working-class heroes who sacrificed their lives to protect North America’s natural resources.
One tragically common tale of heroism and sacrifice involved the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the Yarnell Hill Fire. On June 28th, 2013, a lightning strike ignited a fire on a hillside near Yarnell, Arizona. Wildland firefighters from the Prescott Fire Department, part of the Granite Mountain Hotshot unit, were overcome by a rapidly spreading fire fueled by high winds. That day, nineteen out of twenty Hotshot crew members perished. Despite their attempts to deploy fire shelters, all succumbed to the flames as temperatures at their location soared beyond 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In December 2013, the Industrial Commission of Arizona held the Arizona Forest Division responsible for the firefighters’ deaths: “state fire officials knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier.” The Forestry Division was fined $559,000. No criminal charges were filed against forestry leadership, and no compensation was provided to the families of these men, who had been earning wages well below the poverty line.
Wildland firefighting in the United States is a profession that is often overlooked, underrepresented, and underpaid. The majority of those combating the wildfires that afflict the West are employed by the United States Forest Service (USFS), an agency within the Department of Agriculture.
In 2021, President Joe Biden temporarily increased the minimum pay rate for these USFS employees to $15 per hour through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This means that a full-time firefighter would earn between $24,749 and $32,174 annually. While a significant raise from their previous wages, it still falls woefully short of the cost of living in Western states like California, Oregon, and Washington.
The crucial point to note, aside from the disappointingly meager pay increase, is that the Biden administration’s raise is only temporary, set to expire on September 30th at 11:59 PM. In response to this impending expiration, United States Senator Kyrsten Sinema, along with Senators Barrasso, Manchin, Daines, Padilla, and Tester, has introduced Senate Bill S.2272.
This bill, titled “The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act,” seeks to permanently raise the pay scale for federal wildland firefighters employed by the United States Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Although it only maintains the current temporary rate, acting as a band-aid on the massive wound that is emergency service workers living in abject poverty, it is essential to stop the functional collapse of wildland firefighting on the federal level.
Should this bill fail to pass, we are likely to witness a rapid reduction in forestry, fire prevention, and public safety related to natural resources at the state and federal levels, with these responsibilities shifting to the private sector. The intentional mismanagement of our nation’s natural resources has been occurring over decades and is a deliberate neoliberal policy. It is currently estimated that if the Senate fails to pass this bill by October 1st, the USFS expects to lose fifty percent of its firefighting personnel.
During my conversation with Christina, an “Engine Boss” at the United States Forest Service, regarding the impending pay cuts, she remarked, “many of the folks fighting forest fires are spending the night sleeping in a field full of cow shit. All after being fed a meal that was served out of a bucket… I love my job more than most and while the sunsets we see are stunning, they don’t pay the bills.”
This issue extends beyond the fight for a livable wage for emergency service workers; it is a pivotal concern for the American public. Failing to support those who safeguard our public lands will inevitably lead to their loss, either through deliberate deceit or the destructive force of Mother Nature.