Due to high turnover and competition with federal agencies, half of the state of Idaho’s seasonal wildland firefighters are new, which has resulted in fewer experienced firefighters filling leadership positions, state officials said.
The state has full staffing overall with 170 seasonal firefighters, said Josh Harvey, the Idaho Department of Lands fire management chief. But the state is lacking experienced personnel, such as incident commanders and qualified engine bosses, who each lead a single fire engine and its personnel.
“Experienced firefighters really do have a major impact on how successful we are and keeping our folks safe,” Harvey said in a telephone interview. “We’ve got the staff to fight fires and fill all the seats on the engines. It’s just more of a concern to us if we had another 2021 fire season or a 2015 type season where fires really were explosive, they grew rapidly and there were a lot of starts. It creates situations where inexperienced firefighters may not recognize some hazards they are facing. From that standpoint, it’s a concern to us.”
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As a result, Harvey told the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners (which is made up of Gov. Brad Little and other statewide elected officials) that the state’s wildland firefighters would meet a minimum standard for fire readiness this year as a result of the turnover and lack of experience.
In an interview with the Sun, Harvey said that differs from past years where the state felt good about its ability to provide what he called a robust, experienced response.
Still, Harvey emphasized that the state’s seasonal firefighting crews are committed to providing a safe, effective response across the state and focusing on the state’s goal of keeping 94% of fires it is responsible for to 10 acres of less.
“This year, the reality is that we’re missing out on a lot of those leadership-level folks. It’s hard to describe. We’re going to meet our minimum standards. We can fill in spots where we have holes. But it’s like that experienced bench strength (in sports). We don’t have a lot of bench strength this year.”
Who is responsible for fighting wildfires in Idaho?
The Idaho Department of Lands provides fire protection on more than 6 million acres, including state land, private forests, endowment forest lands and offset lands. Meanwhile, a coalition of federal agencies provides fire protection on Idaho’s federal lands, including national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
The federal government manages about 34.5 million acres of land in Idaho, which is about two-thirds of the state’s landmass, according to the Idaho Department of Lands.
Why is Idaho struggling to retain experienced wildland firefighters?
Harvey, the fire chief for the Idaho Department of Lands, said turnover and leadership retention are complex problems. The economy, Idaho housing costs, state pay levels and competition with federal agencies play roles.
For example, Harvey said fire crews historically hire college students who are looking to save money for the school year.
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“Speaking specifically for Idaho, the cost of living to find a place to rent or to buy has skyrocketed from north to south, even in smaller communities,” Harvey said.
That means student firefighters are spending almost all of their pay on housing and are not able to save money for the school year.
“When we’re looking for temporary employees, some of the deciding factors for these folks are where am I going to live and how much is it going to cost?” he said.
During the most recent legislative session, state legislators approved funding to provide housing to seasonal firefighters in the Kamiah district, Harvey said. One of the Idaho Department of Lands’ strategies is to develop and provide housing for seasonal firefighters, particularly in hard-to-staff regions, Harvey said.
Harvey said he hopes to see housing programs continue and expand, but he knows it will be a years-long process to meet the needs.
Competition for pay is another factor, Harvey said. There is a relatively small pool of people who are interested in working as wildland firefighters, a job that can be difficult and dangerous.
During the 2022 session, the Idaho Legislature approved a 24% increase in state funding for the Idaho Department of Lands budget, the Sun previously reported. That allowed the department to increase the number of seasonal firefighters from about 140 to 170 and increase starting pay to $15.
But the feds have been able to use funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or bipartisan infrastructure law, to offer temporary pay increases and other incentives for firefighters.
This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is posting federal seasonal fire crew positions on the USAJOBS website with pay starting at $16.25 per hour. With one year of related experience, including a minimum of 90 days wildland firefighting experience, pay increases to $18.06 an hour for seasonal jobs as a wildland firefighter on a handcrew through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, the federal firefighting workforce has also been depleted by an inability to keep up with inflation and burnout, States Newsroom and the Idaho Capital Sun have previously reported.
Congress approved temporary pay increases for federal firefighters through the bipartisan infrastructure law. But Congress will need to take action to continue those pay increases after the federal government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
“The temporary pay increases for firefighters authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will continue through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera wrote in a June 20 update on pay for federal wildland firefighters. “We are doing everything we can to inform and educate members of Congress on the potential consequences of the pay cliff.”
What can you do to help reduce the risk of wildfires?
Due to a record snowpack and wet spring, much of Idaho had a delayed start to the fire season and lower risk. However, state fire officials told the land board last month they expect the risk for wildfire to increase in July and August.
Fire officials also told the land board they are concerned about dry conditions and drought in North Idaho, which had a smaller snowpack and more rapid snowmelt.
Harvey said the public should not become lax with fire safety just because the grass looks green or people haven’t seen a lot of big fires locally this year.
“The No. 1 thing over and over again from people who accidentally start a fire is ‘I can’t believe how fast it travels,’” Harvey said. “People are always underestimating how quickly fire can move, even in an environment that seems green and lush.”
Harvey said there are several things to keep in mind when Idahoans are in the mountains or on public lands for recreations.
- Use only established fire rings for campfires, and clear the ground all around the fire ring before starting a fire. When you are done, make sure your campfire is completely extinguished, dead out.
- Make sure chains are not dragging on the ground from a vehicle or ATV. Don’t drive on exposed wheel rims or drive or park on dry grass or shrubs, which can start fires.
- Pay close attention to weather, drought conditions and local fire restrictions.
Additional fire prevention tips are on the Idaho Department of Lands website.