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US tackles firefighter shortage as wildfires rage across North America

The U.S. is working to hire more wildland firefighters as wildfires rage across North America, sending thick smoke across many states.
US tackles firefighter shortage as wildfires rage across North America
Posted at 3:50 PM, Jul 08, 2023

As wildfires continue to rage across Canada, sending thick smoke across the border, the U.S. is racing to address a shortage of wildland firefighters in its own backyard. 

It takes manpower to fight fires, and in recent years, states like California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah have reported growing gaps in their frontline defense against wildfires—a serious problem because wildfire seasons have been getting longer and more intense. 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, a goal was set for 2023 to have 11,300 wildland firefighters onboard by mid-July, ahead of "the busiest part of the fire year in the U.S." 

In March, the U.S. Forest Service said it only had 66 percent of its goal—roughly 7,500 wildland firefighters. As of June 26th, that number had climbed to 95 percent, or 10,778 wildland firefighters, but the U.S. Forest Service says it's been a tough climb to make. 

So, what's holding back hiring? 

For starters, the pay. According to the U.S. Forest Service, "entry-level federal wildland firefighters have a beginning base pay of about $12 to $13 dollars per hour." 

And the U.S. Forest Service acknowledges that the rate is low, citing a struggle to "hire and retain firefighters," stating that for "some positions, the standard base pay is low enough to qualify their families for the USDA's supplemental nutrition assistance program and Medicaid," even adding that the "pay isn't as competitive as we would like."

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Adding fuel to the fire is burnout. As the wildfire season expands, crews are being called away for longer periods of time. Some are even being called upon to help fight fires outside the country. 

"I am calling on the U.S. Forest Service to double the number of forest service rangers to go up to Canada, particularly Quebec and eastern Canada, to help us fight these fires," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. "And if they need to stay there all summer because of the possibility of more of these fires occurring this summer is very real, they should stay there." 

In the midst of all this, studies in recent years have revealed alarming data about the mental well-being of these wildland firefighters and the toll the job takes on them. 

A 2018 study that interviewed 1,131 wildland firefighters found that 55 percent reported experiencing thoughts about suicide. 

So, what's being done to help them? 

Under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, federal wildland firefighters have been able to receive pay supplements—in some cases, as much as 20,000 dollars extra in a year. But there are concerns about what will happen when those funds run out. 

In March, the Biden administration proposed a budget for 2024 that would see the U.S. Department of Agriculture receive $180 million and the U.S. Department of Interior receive another $72 million to raise the base pay for federal and tribal wildland firefighters.

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