As Wildfires Increase, the U.S. Is Losing More Wildland Firefighters Than Ever

As Wildfires Increase, the U.S. Is Losing More Wildland Firefighters Than Ever

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Talk to enough wildland firefighters, and you’ll eventually hear about freedom. Not liberty, necessarily, but the thrill of a job that requires walking around woods with a chainsaw. Hannah Coolidge joined the Forest Service when she was 25, eventually becoming a Hotshot, part of an elect crew that tromps far into forests to cut breaks around the largest wildfires to rob them of fuel. For a decade, Coolidge never attended a wedding or a funeral during fire season, but she loved the life—living outside, working with a tight-knit group, having winters for herself, being in phenomenal shape. (Researchers at the University of Montana have found that, during fire season, Hotshots can expend about as much energy as cyclists in the Tour de France.)

Taylor Hess also came for the time off but found that a Montana fire crew brought communal purpose, something that had been missing in the midwestern town where she was raised. She liked huddling with colleagues at the end of the day, frying Spam over a wildfire’s dying embers, and pouring an electrolyte mix on top. “It’s kind of gross,” she said, but she cherished those moments: “We get so close.”

A lot of the job is grueling and dirty: mopping up the end of a wildfire in a sea of ash; constructing line around piles of downed limbs in advance of lighting a prescribed burn; unrolling a sleeping pad in the woods or an ad hoc camp, then awakening to the boot of a superintendent or water from the sprinklers on a high school football field. It’s slow until it’s not. Then it becomes vertiginous and hallucinatory. “It is a landscape of extremes,” Eric Franta, a wildland firefighter based in Oregon, told me.

During Bobbie Scopa’s first fire, she was walking on a hill above a burning canyon when a chief bellowed for her to cover her head. An air tanker dropped chemical retardant, a great red squall that shook the ground. “I thought, This is the coolest fucking job!” she said.

In many communities, it’s also the best available employment option. Jake Kennedy, now an engine driver in California, was recruited by a former wrestling coach in a tiny Oregon town where the Forest Service was one of two reliable employers. Morgan Thomsen grew up in a remote part of Idaho where his parents worked on fire lookouts, so he was raised thinking that fighting fire was a good way to earn a living. Kristina enlisted in part to honor her family. Her grandfather had been a smoke jumper, and her parents had both worked as wildland firefighters. “We have this loyalty in my family to the Forest Service,” she said.

Among his peers, Elkind is seen as fortunate. He didn’t join the Forest Service to escape rural poverty—he has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Lewis and Clark College—but rather to seek adventure. He was also a smoke jumper, with the status that the job entails. (A fire service joke goes like this: A group of wildland firefighters walk into a bar. How do you know which is the smoke jumper? They’ll tell you.) Still, Elkind, like so many of the firefighters I talked to, seemed almost trapped by the freedom he once sought. “I like my job,” he said. “It’s just hard to see the effects when you’re starting out a career.”

Those effects weren’t just his busted pelvis. It was being away from his family for long stretches. (“It’s a catch-22,” a firefighter told me. “For us to be able to provide for our families, it requires us to basically detach from our families.”) And it was how difficult the Forest Service made it for someone to rise and earn a decent living. To earn a promotion and reach higher pay grades, firefighters usually have to move among the agency’s nine regions or earn a master’s degree in forestry and leave the fire line.

Elkind didn’t want to do either of those things. He’d grown up in Oregon, and his family was rooted there. In early 2022, he and Amber moved to Redmond, a town of 35,000 in the central part of the state, where the Forest Service has one of its seven smoke-jumper bases. Compared with nearby Bend—a bacchanalia of Gore-Tex and microbreweries, where the median home price hovers above $700,000—Redmond is middle class. But, as Elkind told me, “This place is blowing up.”

Redmond, like many towns where wildland firefighters live, has experienced an influx of remote workers since the onset of COVID-19, which has driven up housing costs. The rent on the Elkinds’ modest house is $2,300. Even before his accident, he was nervous about making ends meet. In November 2021, the government offered some relief when Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, creating a temporary pay raise for wildland firefighters of either $20,000 or 50 percent of their regular check.

When I visited Elkind at his home, toys were scattered across the floor, an elk mount lay on a couch, and bills were piled on the dining room table. He wore shorts and a tank top, and his hair was long. Save for the flecks of gray in his beard, he looked boyish. Three months after his accident, he still walked with a limp and needed a cane but was able to drive his kids to school. He had considered filing for workers’ compensation but decided against it, because it was hard to reach his caseworker and because the Forest Service had offered him an office job, which allowed him to benefit from the temporary pay raise.

Until the move, Elkind had been living a split existence, with his family in Portland and his job in Redmond, where he camped out on a colleague’s property during fire season. In the summer of 2020, lightning started a fire on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. It soon spread onto land managed by the Forest Service, and Elkind was dispatched. Upon arriving at a fire camp, he was alarmed by a lack of veteran firefighters. “It was like a ghost town,” he said. He found himself training people from municipal departments who had been hired on temporary contracts to fill vacancies. Over Labor Day weekend, wind carried embers for miles, causing the fire, which became known as the Lionshead, to jump and merge with others. The blazes burned more than 400,000 acres, killing at least five people.

At the same time, his mother’s home near Hagg Lake was under evacuation orders brought on by another fire. Amber was in Portland with the couple’s two-year-old son, in a house without air-conditioning. She was also pregnant. Elkind told her to duct-tape paper towels over a box fan to create a makeshift air filter as smoke from the fires suffused the city. “I think I had a little bit of a mental breakdown,” he told me. “Homes are burning down. People are dying.” Entire forests in western Oregon were disappearing. He couldn’t stop what was happening to the only place he’d ever called his own.

The decision to relocate to Redmond was so Elkind wouldn’t be away from his family throughout fire season. Still, he worried about the choice. Amber had been able to find work with a clinic in Redmond. But for him to reach a higher hourly wage would likely require the family to move again. “What’s she supposed to do? Quit her career every year and a half so I can get a dollar-fifty-an-hour raise?” he asked.

During our discussions, Elkind often edited his sentences so as to not sound like he was blaming the Forest Service, even though as a union representative he had protection. His affection for his work became a refrain that he repeated to the point of awkwardness: “I like my job. It’s just difficult to justify it with a family.” “I do love my job, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s worth it for a young person.” “I would almost do it for free,” he wrote in an op-ed that appeared in The Oregonian in 2021 that was critical of the Forest Service’s refusal “to rise to the challenge of climate change and the growing demand that increased fires, short-staffing and low pay presents for our workforce.”

That rhetorical hesitancy was a reflection of Elkind’s torn feelings, but it was also an acknowledgment of something else: the Forest Service is known to function as a company town in rural America, deterring discussions that could result in negative attention. When I spoke with Jaelith Hall-Rivera, the Forest Service deputy chief for state, private, and tribal forestry, she acknowledged that the agency has a reputation for discouraging employees from speaking out. “We have tried for a long time to change that culture,” she said. “Especially in fire, you have to be able to speak up when something doesn’t feel right to you.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees says it does not track instances of workplace intimidation or retaliation among wildland firefighters, so it’s impossible to ascertain how often this occurs. But fear of reprisal was a common thread in many of my conversations. At a gathering of wildland firefighters and agency supervisors that I attended last spring, a member of a Forest Service rappel crew approached me eager to discuss the changes she wanted to see in the agency—especially the need for more women in leadership positions. An older colleague quickly pulled her aside; when she returned, she asked if she could see the article before it was published. When I asked if a superior had told her not to speak to me, she said, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.”

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