From the Ashes of the Old: A New Deal for Wildland Firefighters

From the Ashes of the Old: A New Deal for Wildland Firefighters

A massive overhaul and expansion of the wildland workforce is the best hope we have to confront the firestorm that threatens to engulf the West Coast.

The Texas Canyon Hotshot crew fights a fire July 2016. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

Last summer, the fires creeping up from Salem, Oregon, and the base of the Cascades colored Portland’s skies a sickly red. While it’s extremely difficult for an urban metropolis to burn, the satellite images of smoke spreading out over the Pacific made it seem as though cataclysm wasn’t far off. In the fall, after what might have been the worst fire season ever recorded in the western United States, the smoke subsided, but the sense of unease remained.

In the summers of 2017 and 2018, I lived in Portland while waiting for the call to pack up and head to my fire crew’s dispatch in the Columbia River Gorge. I worked on a twenty-person handcrew, chainsawing snags in the pine stands of eastern Oregon and driving across barren straits of sage scrub in Montana’s wilderness. Once, atop granite cliffs in Idaho, we scouted for spot fires smoldering out between the juniper and cattle carcasses, tongues of dry lightning flickering above the hills.

During sixteen-hour shifts in the smoke, under the roar of helicopters, a new reality takes shape, divorced from the familiarities of a world not yet ablaze. After just a few days, your sense of smell is cut in half, and soon it almost completely disappears. During long truck rides and in thickets of poison oak, civilization faded. The people I worked with were the only constant in an ever-changing natural landscape. On the crew, we developed a fragile but potent solidarity.

We were one part of a privatized and fractured workforce mobilized each summer then abandoned in the winter. Across California and the Pacific Northwest, tens of thousands of workers battle fire without labor protections or benefits, for wages that fluctuate wildly, from just a couple dollars an hour for incarcerated workers to more than $20 an hour for the veteran U.S. Forest Service employee or private crew boss. Between private contractors, state agencies, and federal bureaus, there are vast discrepancies in training and efficacy.

As the United States slips closer to ecological collapse, the organization of America’s wildland labor force must be radically overhauled if there is to be any hope in combating our climate emergency. A massive job mobilization expanding the public workforce, reversing the trend of privatization, securing a living wage for tens of thousands of firefighters, and multiplying year-round positions that address the increasingly complex factors that lead to megafires is the best hope we have to confront the firestorm that threatens to engulf the West Coast.

In 2020, more than 58,250 wildfires burned some 10.3 million acres across the United States. California was hammered by the fires, as were Colorado, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest. At a high-profile September meeting with President Donald Trump, California Governor Gavin Newsom blamed climate change for the crisis. Trump prescribed forest management. Media on both sides of the political spectrum began the usual onslaught of op-eds and news segments confirming their preferred causal mechanism.

The exact impact climate change has on wildfires is still not completely understood, but there is no doubt global warming plays a complex and increasingly severe role. Warming has accelerated the creep of invasive flora across California’s deserts, which dry out into an alien mat that serves as a novel fuel source in an ancient and once predictable ecosystem. Carbon emissions have not only accelerated warming but also changed wind patterns, the predictability of snow melt, and soil erosion—all of which affect wildfires. Over the past fifty years, data from the Congressional Research Service shows that the biggest burn years by acreage were 2006, 2007, 2012, 2015, 2017, and now 2020.

To claim that the catastrophic fires are solely the result of climate change, however, misses the forest for the trees. As Mike Davis details in his 1995 essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” catastrophic wildfires are intimately tied to development in natural fire areas. For millions of years vast swaths of North American forests burned regularly, clearing out underbrush and revitalizing an ecosystem that evolved to follow cycles of fire and regrowth.

Starting in the first half of the twentieth century, a fire management strategy to limit any and all burns took hold, driven by massive but natural fires that the government hoped it could prevent by extinguishing them as soon as they were spotted. Today, urban development continues to expand further into the increasingly sick forests that this policy left behind. While the necessary role that controlled burns play in limiting megafires and restoring forests is now better understood, the damage these early policies inflicted on both the wildland firefighter workforce and forest ecology haunt the modern landscape.

On the fire line, a constant refrain to get us back to work was “Empty hands, dirty land!” The forests we worked in were overgrown, full of dense thickets and deadfall waiting to spark. (One sawyer often recounted to our increasingly unamused crew how he once watched a moose cross a logging road. The wood and underbrush were too dense for it to pass on the other side, so it turned around and started walking down the road in search of a rest stop.) Part of our job was clearing away the dense underbrush and low hanging branches that build up without regular burns, helping the fire climb and ignite the forest canopy. There has been little political support for the kind of expansive and expensive burns necessary to maintain healthy forests and tame this growth—or for hiring the workforce to conduct them. Fire suppression budgets are devoted to reaction. And by the time the fire season is over, precipitation and low temperatures can mean there’s nothing to burn, even if the funding for preventative measures were available.

The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is the agency in charge of suppression in California, the state where fires rage the biggest and longest. Anyone who has fought wildfires will tell you that Cal Fire’s salaries, averaging $70,000 a year, are the highest in the industry, nearly double those of federal employees; they’ll also tell you that they’re some of the worst wildland firefighters. While Cal Fire has its own wildland vehicles, it also relies on urban fire resources (both personnel and vehicles) ill-equipped for fires that rage outside of cities.

“What makes urban fire departments work isn’t a lot of trucks and people. It’s the zoning and fire codes,” said Stephen J. Pyne, an emeritus history professor at Arizona State University and MacArthur Fellowship recipient who fought wildfires for about fifteen years beginning in the 1960s.

“In a city, you have a say over how fires can be prevented. You don’t have that say in the countryside,” he said. “Cities haven’t burned for a while, unless a war or an earthquake breaks down the capacity to protect them. But in the countryside, trying to inject an urban plan is hugely expensive and inefficient.” In 2019, Cal Fire’s budget was some $2.3 billion. Nonetheless, Pyne said, “Once a fire reaches a certain size, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Elsewhere in the country, the long march of neoliberalism has taken its toll on the backcountry workforce. “As much as a third of the crews in the Northwest are now contract crews, and that really started under Reagan,” according to Pyne. “I can’t see how it’s reduced costs. It’s exactly like what we’ve done with the military. We have hardcore special forces like the hotshots, and then we have basically mercenary groups paid a lot better than people in the military.”

At the height of the fire season, the media invoke the language of the battlefield to describe efforts to flank and beat back the blaze. A more useful comparison to the military would acknowledge the armed forces’ horrific failings: unchecked spending on private contractors whose owners rake in taxpayer dollars with little oversight, and politicians who display a total abdication of responsibility when workers’ tours of duty end.

I worked on a privately run contract crew. Its proximity to Portland meant that it was one of the more racially and politically diverse in the state, and we had one of the rare bosses who provided overtime pay, which neared $20 an hour. Our crew included Trump supporters and liberals, a former Marine turned InfoWarrior, and a Bernie Sanders–loving Joe Rogan fan. There was a Bundy standoff attendee whose car had been stopped by FBI agents, and Disco Dave, one of Portland’s premiere psychedelics distributors. An old Earth First! member sometimes rode in the truck with a half-dozen Mexican crew members, themselves drawn together from Guerrero, Michoacán, and Sonora. There was also Ashton, the only woman and the only black person on the crew.

During the two seasons I spent on the fire line, we saw other crews sent home for fighting or for having crew members attempt to backcountry detox from pills or methamphetamine. Fortunately, our crew kept it together. The precariousness of contract labor encouraged group harmony: cause a problem, and it’s easy enough to find a replacement on the next fire. Politics were discussed, but their implications were dulled by the lack of cellular service. While tensions simmered under the surface, by the end of the season political disagreements had faded away from exhaustion, and a new form of solidarity emerged from a season of hard and dangerous labor.

When I reached out to my crew last fall, I found that only a few people had stayed on, most of them young men without families. Mike, a father of four who left firefighting to work in excavation, told me that the unpredictability and the time away from family wasn’t worth the cost. “They gotta pay you more!” he said through a toothy, scrunched-up grin. “You know that first year I was trying to bank cash, I was living with my in-laws, and I had to take two and then three jobs before we got called out? And then being away for months? Can’t do it.” In the summer of 2019, with wetter weather conditions, all the work went to federal and state employees, and the crew we’d worked on didn’t get a single call—a painful reminder of the precarity of seasonal labor run by private enterprise.

“I had to do a different career path, even though fighting fires was my passion,” Mike said. “I like the comradery, the adrenaline. It’s just helping your environment, and I’ve always liked that hero shit because I never did the military. I liked the structure. At the end of the day we all had each other’s backs. You’re out there without anything civilized but everything was good out there. Out here people hate each other but not firefighting.”

Ashton, a single mother, had other reasons for leaving. The combination of harassment from other crews, low pay, time away from family, and the liability that comes with being a woman in a male industry kept her away from a fourth season. “Going into fire camps and being around the general population was rough,” she said. “I got comments, a lot of sexual advances, a lot of harassment. One time someone opened up their bag and [showed me] a tube of lube.”

“I mainly tried keeping to myself instead of causing issues for our crew,” Ashton said. (Contract crews can get blacklisted for fights, drug use, and safety violations, but also for running harassment complaints up the chain of command.) “That would lead to people losing out on a lot of money. There was no decorum on the contract crew, but I feel like people still had my back. I still miss firefighting and that whole world.”

Jamison, another crew member, spent the months after the 2019 fire season ended driving around to different hotshot crews in an effort to line up work for next season. He eventually found work on a federal engine crew for the summer of 2020. At thirty-two, he still wanted to realize the dream of firefighters in bygone decades, living on the cheap and taking vacations to South America in the off-season. Jamison made it to Mexico last winter, but stagnating wages and an increase in the cost of living have ended that lifestyle for all but the young and the debtless.

Jamison told me about the final fire of the 2018 season, when the crew finally fractured and split up:

We went back out on a two-week roll after a two-day R&R, so people had only really seen their families for a day or two in months. We stayed in Cali and we are almost done with the roll. But then people start to lose their shit. People are tired. Flaco [a Mexican crew member] hurt his ankle. He had been limping earlier that spring and I’m the EMT, so I wrap him and he gets put on light duty. . . . This goes on for three days, and then he tells me his ankle was fine. He wants to keep working. We were all standing around, there was nothing left to mop up, but Flaco keeps working. He’s clearly hurting, and they tell him to stop, and then he loses it. Starts screaming, “You white guys are fucking lazy,” and he fucking quits and takes all the other Mexican guys with him. I think really they just needed to see their families.

In that moment, after months out on the line, racial tensions that had simmered below the surface were activated by the combined triggers of our boss’s debt obligations for his fledgling business, the economic disparity between those with families and those without, and the absence of any kind of dispute resolution mechanism that could be provided by a union. When I compared our jobs to gig workers, everyone I spoke with winced.

Others had fared far worse than Jamison. According to someone else on the crew, Javier, an undocumented worker from Guerrero who taught me how to smoke cigarettes at night through cupped hands and rub chainsaw oil on my boots to soften them, passed away from COVID-19. Michael, another firefighter I worked with, hung himself over the winter. Others I asked about nobody had heard from. We were unsure whether they were alive, dead, or on the street.

“I’m tired of all the bullshit,” Ron told me. “I just want somebody in Washington to describe what you have to do on a job to make it pay a living wage. Parachute into a fire? Repel under a fucking helicopter? What else should it take to support a family, to have a house, to afford a mortgage?” Ron is a smokejumper, the most elite class of wildland firefighter, and he’s well into his second decade firefighting. He is still making less than $20 an hour before hazard pay and overtime, barely exceeding the entry level Forest Service rate of $13 an hour. Over the course of our conversation, he repeatedly mentioned the wages workers make at the Burgerville fast-food chain in Oregon. Why, he asked, do burger flippers make more than firefighters?

The answer is a strong union. Burgerville’s fry cooks haven’t made it to $15 an hour yet—they’re on $13.50 in Oregon. But they did win a significant raise in 2019 after a fight for $15 backed by the Industrial Workers of the World. One hundred years earlier, IWW members descended on Oregon logging camps to secure better wages, safer working conditions, and edible food for the workers who would unknowingly prime Oregon’s pristine forests for the catastrophic burns of our modern era. Today, the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees represents Forest Service firefighters, but Ron said that their presence is hard to detect, and they have failed to win meaningful reforms. Cal Fire workers, by contrast, are represented by the powerful International Association of Fire Fighters, whose union muscle has maintained the agency’s high salaries.

In response to the lack of meaningful representation, Ron joined the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters Committee, an organization lobbying Congress not only to increase the pittance that federal firefighters are paid but also to create a national fire service, which would bring disparate crews spread out under a half dozen government agencies and hundreds of private contractors under one roof. “That would make it a lot easier to organize,” I said. Ron agreed.

“Anytime there is legislative reform,” Ron said, “it never addresses actual firefighters. It’s always about getting more money for equipment. It never talks about the suicide, depression crises, lack of staffing—the stuff that affects not only fire suppression efforts but also actual employees.”

In September of last year, California lawmakers introduced the Federal Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act to change the job title of forestry technicians like Ron to “Wildland Firefighter.” The act neglects to offer any additional changes, financial or otherwise. Ron relies on overtime hours to get through the long winters without work. He has the option of receiving healthcare thanks to a 2012 executive order signed by Barack Obama extending coverage to federal firefighters, but it only provides coverage during the season, when it’s difficult to arrange care and find a trusted physician.

Beyond neglecting the immediate needs of firefighters, Ron sees broader consequences for the political failure to address the mounting wildfire crisis. “You start looking at our society, and everybody is so stressed out.” he told me. “What’s going to be able to save people, especially these days, is getting out onto public lands.”

Mount Jefferson burned up. Areas around Mount Hood burned up. These places won’t recover. It’s a hundred-year deal. . . . It doesn’t just grow back. What do these politicians want? Do they want people to give up on public lands? At some point what we’re really talking about is a massive defunding of federal lands—basically people privatizing and selling our national forests, defunding them by not funding a workforce, and then saying we can’t manage our fires because there’s nobody there to do it.

The myriad state and federal agencies that oversee wildland firefighters are incredibly inefficient. Beyond pay discrepancies, the lack of coordination means that crews from the Pacific Northwest can leapfrog assignments across the country, ending up on fires in Florida or Georgia even as the West Coast runs out of resources and explodes at the height of the season.

Pyne said this is partially a result of “total mobility,” a policy development of the 1970s. “Total mobility” meant that “the Forest Service was no longer going to conduct itself as a hegemon. Everything in the sixties was under Forest Service control. Research, prevention, crews. Agencies were setting up their own fire program to meet their own missions. This idea of total mobility meant that a Forest Service chopper could fly on a BLM [Bureau of Land Management] fire, a BLM hotshot crew could work on a Forest Service fire, etcetera.”

Total mobility also coincided with the shrinking of the federal workforce. As jobs in the Forest Service were cut, private contractors filled the void at double the price. It’s hard to determine the exact number of wildland firefighters in the United States because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a specific category, nor do they keep track of private contractors. The Forest Service puts its own ranks at 10,000. The other federal agencies have a few thousand more, and the trade group for private contractors claims 12,000. Prison crews make up another 3,000 to 4,000 in addition to Cal Fire’s 10,000 full time and seasonal employees. All told, more than 35,000 wildland firefighters still aren’t enough to address the challenges of megafires.

Since the mid-1970s, independent contract crews have swelled their ranks with undocumented immigrants, rural seasonal workers, and college students (who make up as much as 30 percent of Oregon’s crews) working to pay off student loans. Meanwhile, incarcerated laborers, many of whom told me they prefer firefighting to the yard, will fail to earn a living wage even if they’re fortunate enough to get hired after their release. The practice of using incarcerated people as firefighters began in 1915 but became a permanent fixture during the Second World War because of labor shortages. Today, they are paid less than $3 a day and given only two days of training. Last year Governor Newsom signed AB 2147, clearing a narrow and difficult path for formerly incarcerated firefighters in California to effectively expunge their records and secure employment as firefighters upon release. But the same hurdles that face any formerly incarcerated person, firefighter or otherwise, still apply. Those who fail to secure employment in the highly competitive Cal Fire system will be forced to turn to private crews, extending the exploitation, poor pay, and extreme hazards from a prison network to a privatized workforce.

In the new era of megafires, the United States has yet to commit to fairly compensating and organizing the people who risk their lives to battle wildfires. Surprisingly, the first step toward reversing this trend may have been taken by Donald Trump in his last week in office. On January 14, Trump signed an executive order creating the Wildland Fire Management Policy Committee. The committee, as outlined in the order, would attempt to reign in the myriad agencies that combat wildfires under Forest Service control and expand and retain the federal workforce. According to the order, it would be co-chaired by the heads of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture—which would mean the most radical member of Joe Biden’s cabinet, proposed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, would play a crucial role in centralizing wildland fire policy under the federal workforce. As of this writing, however, the order has been deleted from the White House’s website.

Nonetheless, if Biden is open to reforming this sector, there is another model to use, one that is tied to a less disagreeable president. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most successful and enduring parts of FDR’s New Deal, created millions of well-paying jobs in the outdoors and demonstrated the transformative power a jobs guarantee can have on a barren economic landscape not dissimilar to what we’re predicted to face in the aftermath of the pandemic. The CCC was rife with racial segregation and the worst terrors of the Jim Crow era; but a modern version could hold the dual promise of economic and racial justice if it offered high wages and benefits to the wildland fire sector’s diverse workforce.

Fighting wildfires offers a rare opportunity in the modern American landscape to live in the wilderness while also carrying out an existential duty. As we talked about our seasons together, the voices of my former crew members were inflected with a deep and hollow sadness. While they knew the job couldn’t provide the financial stability they needed, they also acknowledged that the work provided a balm to the trials of urban life and connections with the sort of people they would never have grown to trust otherwise.

The executive order on climate Biden signed in January includes a commitment to the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, although its exact contours are still under wraps. Organizing workers under a national wildfire agency would satiate the president’s desire to project a strong image while simultaneously enacting policy to cement an enduring legacy. The GOP has promised to reject any and all new government spending, but firefighters have bipartisan appeal: they resonate with a rugged sense of Americana, divorced from the worst excesses of empire and policing. A program centralizing and expanding the wildland workforce has Biden’s name all over it, but it will only wield transformative power if it protects and advances the interests of vulnerable and poorly compensated workers, not only expanding their ranks but strengthening their rights.

One of the most dangerous days I spent on the handcrew came during a twenty-one-day run in Oregon. Our crew was mopping up after an unsuccessful backburn that had scorched the trunks of the towering ponderosa pines under which we worked. Every hour we heard a crack whip out from the forest followed by a deadening thump. Late in the day, the fire began to rage, and we retreated to our trucks, but not before a tree came down between our crew boss and a sawyer. They narrowly avoided it by dashing in opposite directions. Clearly shaken, the sawyer grumbled back at fire camp that we didn’t get paid enough for this kind of bullshit. Our boss grinned, then nodded at a prison bus parked nearby. “You should be grateful you’re getting paid at all.”

His joke laid bare the distinction between slave and worker, worker and boss, and, given the context of his near death, the inability of anyone, boss or otherwise, to escape an environment collapsing in on itself. An expanded FDR-styled jobs program won’t solve the legacies of slavery, genocide, economic oppression, and environmental degradation that continue to plague our country. But it could be the first step in building a diverse and effective workforce united in the task of fighting back the flames of our terrifying new century.

Daniel Boguslaw is a writer, researcher, and former firefighter who has written for publications including the American Prospect, the New Republic, the Intercept, and the Nation.

Correction: Due to an editorial oversight, the print version of this essay included a summary of the wildland firefighter wage scale that excluded incarcerated workers. That error has been corrected here.

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