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Federal agencies are struggling to hire and retain firefighters


As climate change intensifies wildfire seasons, federal agencies are struggling to hire and retain firefighters. Joe Wertz from Colorado Public Radio reports.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Hillary Johnson is the exact type of firefighter the federal government needs.

HILLARY JOHNSON: It's busy and outdoors. And I loved the physical aspect of it. I loved the adrenaline that comes with firefighting.

WERTZ: Johnson joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2015 and worked her way up to become a smokejumper, an elite class of firefighters who parachute in to contain fires in some of the country's most rugged terrain. But now she's leaving.

JOHNSON: I'm out. Yep, yesterday was my last day with the Forest Service.

WERTZ: Johnson made $16 an hour base pay and was a seasonal employee. She worked a lot of overtime to make the low pay worth it. In a few days, she'll start a new job as a software developer.

JOHNSON: I have been thinking about it. And I want just a better work-life balance for myself.

WERTZ: To slow turnover, the Biden administration approved one-time bonuses for firefighters last year. Congress also earmarked $600 million in pay raises and other reforms in the infrastructure bill last year. But those raises...

JOHNSON: None of it made it through to me. As far as I know, none of that has taken effect yet.

WERTZ: Combine the financial and schedule stress with a slow and uncertain career path, add in the physical and mental toll, it's all a recipe that has led many federal firefighters to leave for more predictable and better-paying local or private firefighting jobs - or, like Johnson, leave the field altogether. These tensions have been simmering for years among federal firefighters. Magnifying everything is a climate-fueled wildfire season that's starting earlier, lasting longer and growing more intense.


WERTZ: On a recent Saturday, volunteer wildfire coordinator Katrina Stevens made the rounds in her mountain neighborhood southwest of Denver. She was checking on her neighbors' progress clearing brush away from their homes. Patti Seitz (ph) and her husband were piling branches.

PATTI SEITZ: You know, you think you cut down a ton of scrub oak and you've done an amazing job. And then two years later, it looks exactly the same.

WERTZ: It snowed up here a couple of weeks ago, but there's no trace of it. It's hot, dry and incredibly windy. The National Weather Service has warned of extreme wildfire conditions. Forecasters have issued a lot of these warnings lately, 122 so far this year, and it's only May. Stevens worries about understaffed and overworked federal fire crews. She lives on private land. But her home is connected to national forest land by trees, drought-baked brush and a whole lot of wind.

KATRINA STEVENS: Pretty much everyone will agree that at some point, this will burn. It's been well over a hundred years since it had a real serious fire.

WERTZ: U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore testified about the federal firefighter shortages earlier this month. He told Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley the agency hired more than 10,000 workers and that overall staffing is around 90% of the agency's goals.


RANDY MOORE: But that 90%, it's a lot less than that in certain geographic locations. It's as low as 50% in some areas.

JEFF MERKLEY: All right. Well, that's - 50% sounds a little scary thinking about the fires that we'll be facing in our various states.

WERTZ: Moore told senators the agency is backfilling fire positions with other agency employees and contract firefighters. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management did not agree to interviews but say they're working to enact the reforms and get the federal funding into firefighter paychecks. They also say some of the hiring gaps will be closed when college students finish their terms and apply for summer firefighting jobs.

For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARBOUR'S "DAFFODIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.