Wildland Firefighters Are Fighting For Their Rights—and Respect

Federal wildland firefighters make up the single largest professionally trained firefighting force in the world. We staff fire engines and earthmovers, work from helicopters and jump from planes, and move as 20-person, well-coordinated crews of "ground pounders." We also put together incident management teams to manage many kinds of relief efforts.

Our teams have dealt with emergencies like Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But on paper—for bureaucratic reasons—we are not called "firefighters." Instead, we are called forestry and range "technicians."

To us, that distinction is a longstanding joke that's not remotely funny. The failure to recognize who we are and what we do comes at a great price.

Few Americans see a green fire engine for what it is, have any idea what hotshot crews face on the fireline, or have even heard of helitack. Even those closest to us may not fully grasp the long shifts we endure or the risks we take. But we love what we do; anyone who doesn't soon decides that the commitments are too many and the sacrifices are too great.

The dangerous conditions encountered in wildland firefighting, combined with the rush of adrenaline and a sense of duty and brotherhood, are exactly the reasons we love our jobs. We not only accept these aspects of our work, we live for them! There are, however, other aspects of the job that are harder to accept, particularly for those who rely on the work to support families. Few Americans realize this, but federal firefighters are treated and paid considerably less well than our counterparts in private, city and state agencies. 

For example, many non-federal firefighters are guaranteed hotel rooms and 24-hour pay when they're working away from home. Federal firefighters, though, usually sleep in the dirt, like convict crews, and we are not paid for more than 16 hours per day on incidents.

Federal firefighters regularly work 112-hour workweeks for two or three weeks at a time, yet we are not compensated for at least one-third of that time. The nickel-and-diming we face goes further: Firefighters are often required to staff fires overnight without pay, and lunch breaks are seldom paid. On prescribed fires, hazard pay is not given even though we are required to carry emergency fire shelters with us. 

These and other discrepancies in treatment and pay contribute to dismal retention rates among federal agencies. Millions of dollars are wasted annually to hire and train new firefighters, though many will leave as soon as they're offered fire jobs with better hours, benefits, pay and pensions.

Federal firefighters are generally hidden from public view. We are stationed in the outdoors, and we are (happily) grimy, dirty, smelly and hairy during those 16-hour shifts on the fireline. The media are seldom permitted to enter our hazardous work zones. Unfortunately, this low profile means that our job is easily misrepresented and misunderstood. The public remains ignorant about who we are and what we do. As wildland firefighters, our faces and stories rarely make the news—unless we die on the job.

The problems we face should be illuminated, but constructive dialogue is hampered by the old-school "can-do" work ethic—coupled with the "shut-up-and-do-your-job" mentality. The lack of public awareness means that our working conditions remain the same, and the problems I've described here go unreported, and therefore unresolved. 

Still, some stalwart supporters and lobbyists have fought for decades to improve our pay and working conditions. This year, for the first time, seasonal firefighters were given access to health benefits. A recent bill introduced in Congress would address some of the other issues I've described, but the Wildland Firefighter Protection Act (H.R.2858) is unlikely to be signed into law if no one knows about it. That's why I'm breaking my silence on the subject: I hope that public pressure and support for federal firefighters will carry this proposed legislation into law. Here's a way to stand with federal firefighters: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/wildland-firefighter/

It hurts not to be recognized for the hard work we do, and to be denied the benefits and financial support systems that other "real" firefighters automatically receive. We have no shortage of personal pride in our work, but that pride often appears to be unshared by our own government, elected officials and the public we serve.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.