You might have seen something about the low pay these professionals receive – starting at less than $14/hour – since it captured the attention of President Biden in recent weeks.
“That’s going to end in my administration,” Biden pledged. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”
His administration has taken temporary actions so far to address this, which former wildland firefighter Brandon Dunham told me equate to a “Band-Aid on an arterial wound.” Because, he explained, it’s not just that firefighters aren’t getting paid enough, it’s that there are deep structural issues in this field that have long been ignored.
“Times have changed and these policies that we’re under just don’t fit the mold anymore,” Dunham told me. “They just don’t – it doesn’t work. So, us being first responders at the end of the day, it’s critical that we are treated as such.”
Dunham shared with me his personal story of leaving the profession after more than a decade due to its impact on his mental health, as well as his desire to start a family, the low pay, and his fear of retribution for speaking out about any of it. He also told me about firefighters who are currently living out of their cars or camping in the woods since they can’t afford housing in the area they’ve been stationed. As the host of the wildland firefighting-focused Anchor Point Podcast
, he says he reaches a community of 17,000 people and hears a similar message from many of them through surveys
and conversations: they’re struggling.
“We’re bordering on basically a mental health crisis within our own community,” Dunham said.
Others I spoke with for the article dug into the problems with their very job title and classification (technically, they aren’t actually called “firefighters”), of not having adequate health insurance despite the obvious physical toll of the job, of recruiting new hires to a role that is becoming increasingly difficult as climate change fuels longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons. And it’s a cycle – as the strapped staff becomes overwhelmed and burned out by suppression work, there can be less capacity to do mitigation projects, such as prescribed burning, that could lower the risk of damaging wildfires in the future.
In writing this piece, I tried to help people better understand how these deeply ingrained issues overlay onto the current wildfires in the West. I hope you’ll give it a read
and let me know what you think.
To learn more, I suggest checking out media from those former firefighters themselves. Along with Dunham’s podcast, you can listen to Amanda Monthei’s Life With Fire
podcast, which offers an introduction to the long history and role of fire in our ecosystem. Another source quoted in the piece, Chuck Sheley of the National Smokejumper Association
, pointed me to Smokejumper Magazine
, where I found a number of powerful op-eds from those active in the profession. And I’m going to leave you with a thread from Jim Whittington, a retired incident management team member I spoke with for this newsletter
on disaster misconceptions, that offers even more context around the issue: