Low Wages and Health Risks Are Crippling the U.S. Wildland Firefighting Forces


At the end of February, a curtain of flames engulfed the Texas Panhandle, eventually marking the state’s largest wildfire in history. The blaze was merciless, burning through more than 1 million acres of land and swallowing houses whole. 

While many residents in this region fled to safer ground, a small contingent ran toward the inferno to help stifle it. After a grueling three-week battle, Texas firefighters managed to fully contain the epic wildfire in mid-March

Each year, thousands of wildland firefighters put their lives on the line to face similar battles across the U.S., particularly along the West Coast. As climate change accelerates, warming temperatures and drier conditions are fueling longer and more severe fire seasons, which are pushing U.S. firefighters to their limits. 

In the first three months of 2024, wildfires tore through around 2,660 square miles of land, more than half of last year’s total annual area burned, reports the Associated Press. Many firefighters argue that they are not getting the government support they need to take on these increasingly dangerous conditions. 

Burning Up: In March, ProPublica published a sprawling investigation about how top federal agencies are failing U.S. wildland firefighters. The main issues boil down to low wages and a lack of support for job-related health threats, of which there are many. 

Beyond the obvious hazards of clocking into work in an active fire zone, wildland firefighters are exposed to a variety of long-term threats—from carcinogens in the smoke and ash to “forever chemicals” in firefighter foam known as PFAS, which has been linked to various types of cancer. 

But another threat is silently simmering among the people who fight the flames: suicide risk. In 2022, my colleague Liza Gross wrote about the rising reports of suicide and depression among wildland firefighters—and the need to better study these risks. 

“It’s a job skill to be able to manage personal discomfort, physical discomfort, emotional discomfort and stress while working in high-demand, high-consequence occupations,” Patricia O’Brien, who worked as a wildland firefighter for 15 years and now oversees the Bureau of Land Management’s mental health program, told Inside Climate News. “But it can be really difficult to shift gears and switch that off.”

Despite the high health costs associated with this job, compensation remains low, starting at around $15 an hour for permanent firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the majority of the country’s wildfire response efforts. Now, the Forest Service is struggling to hold the frontlines of its firefighting brigades, with a 45 percent attrition rate among its permanent employees in the past three years and fewer new individuals applying, according to ProPublica’s analysis. 

“The ship is sinking,” Abel Martinez, a Forest Service engine captain in California and the national fire chair for the National Federation of Federal Employees, told ProPublica. 

Firefighter Reform: Wildland firefighters are classified by different tiers based on their qualifications and areas of expertise, often requiring years of training to learn how to manage teams during large fires like those that ravaged the Texas Panhandle. In the past few years, however, employees with less experience have been forced to tackle more complex blazes than they are prepared for. 

In the face of growing fire risks—and shrinking firefighter staff—the Forest Service is testing a new business model this season by deploying 44 leadership teams to help handle this next generation of infernos, reports the Associated Press. Additionally, as fire seasons become longer, federal offices say they will be hiring more permanent positions rather than seasonal crew members, which have traditionally made up more than a third of the wildland firefighting workforce. 

Last year, the Forest Service launched a mental health support program, but it’s still within early planning stages and far behind similar programs run through the Bureau of Land Management, critics say. Within the Senate, there is a push to permanently increase pay for wildland firefighters, though the bill has not yet been voted on. 

“By the time I left fire in 2020, half the temps on my crew were living in their cars and sleeping literally down by the river because gentrification from remote work had sent housing prices in mountain towns skyrocketing,” Christopher Benz, a former wildland firefighter and writer, recently wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “If the nation wants experienced firefighters to stay in the job, it should just raise the base pay.”

However, in California, a new—and darkly ironic—issue is arising: Firehouses are struggling to get fire insurance as risks become too high for insurers. State senators and representatives from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection discussed this situation at a Senate budget subcommittee hearing in Sacramento on April 11, reports Politico

Aside from the area burned already, the National Interagency Fire Center forecasts project a slow start to this fire season overall due to wet conditions across many parts of the country. However, the outlook shows high wildfire risk throughout the Midwest, Southwest and Hawaii, which has just started to recover from its last major wildfire last August.

With climate-fueled fires exposing the issues in of the nation’s firefighting system, it’s going to be difficult for reforms to match the pace that flames are spreading.

More Top Climate News

In March, I wrote about scientists predicting that rising ocean temperatures were pushing the world toward its fourth mass coral bleaching event. 

Welp, the prediction has officially come true, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and international partners announced Monday. And federal officials say that this could be the most widespread mass coral bleaching event in history. Bleaching occurs when ocean water temperatures become too warm and cause corals to expel the algae living in their tissues, turning their color white.

Around the world, 54 countries and nations—from Kenya to Indonesia—have confirmed bleaching events in their waters, reports The New York Times. Last year, bleaching hit several previously unaffected reef areas and corals that were not deeply affected in the past, such as soft corals in Florida, which my colleague Bob Berwyn covered

“That was completely unexpected,” Derek Manzello, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, told Inside Climate News. “What ended up happening is, they got hit with so much heat so fast, they just kind of disintegrated. They started sloughing off their tissues. That was definitely one of the most shocking things to me last year.”

Meanwhile marine upwelling is driving cold snaps in other pockets of the ocean, which could be killing sharks, a new study suggests. In these events, strong winds and ocean currents can push cold water to the surface, causing a rapid change in temperature that some marine life may struggle to survive, the researchers say. 

“Climate change is actually really complex,” Nicolas Lubitz, lead author of the study and a researcher at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, told CNN. “It’s not just warming of the globe, but it’s really changing the way our oceans function.”


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