US federal firefighters struggle with staffing crisis

Los Angeles, California, US – Facing longer and more intense wildfire seasons, US federal firefighters say their workforce is beset by low wages and mounting vacancies, which are affecting their ability to do their job.

As prolonged periods of drought and rising temperatures turn overgrown forests into kindling, tens of thousands of fires have ripped through millions of acres of land across the United States this year.

But despite a growing need for firefighters’ services, the staffing crisis continues to worsen, worker advocacy groups and firefighters say.“The worse fires get and the more short-staffed crews become, the more trauma gets loaded onto firefighters,” Kelly Ramsey, a former firefighter with the US Forest Service (USFS).

“The work is inherently dangerous, but it’s less safe if crews don’t have the resources they need.”“We didn’t have enough people to fill all our positions, so we asked around to see if other crews had extra workers who could help out,” one California-based firefighter said. “But everyone else was having the same problem we were.

They were all low on staff.”For gruelling work that includes ferrying crews in and out of fire zones via helicopter, using heavy equipment to contain fires, and parachuting into fire zones, the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighters stands at just $15 an hour.

Some workers say they have turned to crowd-funding websites to cover medical expenses, while others cannot afford basic necessities, such as housing.Meanwhile, wildfire seasons continue to break records.

In California, eight of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since 2017, as blazes displace residents and spread acrid smoke from the iconic vineyards north of San Francisco to beachside communities in Malibu.Biden recently announced a temporary wage increase for federal firefighters of up to $20,000 a year, but acknowledged “there is more work to do, especially as climate change fuels more wildfires”.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein this month highlighted the massive staffing gap, citing around 1,650 vacancies in the federal firefighting workforce, including 650 in California alone.Short staffing can be dangerous in this profession.

During a wildfire in California last year, Ramsey said there were not enough crews available to carry out vital tasks, such as clearing out unstable trees that could easily collapse if they caught fire.

A tree then collapsed on one of her colleagues, who escaped with minor injuries.Firefighters work to contain the Oak Fire near Mariposa, California in late July “Folks only get this raise for one more year, and if it isn’t followed up by meaningful reform, a lot of people might treat it like a severance package,” Jonathon Golden, a policy analyst with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from one stone.

”Indeed, there are concerns that when the raise ends next year, firefighters could lose hope.“We see the president putting out statements celebrating this,” said a firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management. “But a lot of people are worried that over time, the concern will fade, and we’ll be right back where we were before.”

Fire­fight­ers bat­tled through the night, strug­gling to con­tain the blaze in­ten­si­fied by strong gusts of wind.

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