Hot Job, Low Pay: What Utah is Doing To Recruit & Keep Wildland Firefighters
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah —It’s a hot job: out in the heat, battling forest fires. Wildland firefighting is so hot, the Department of Labor lists it as one of the top 20 fastest-growing jobs. It’s expected to see 24% growth from 2019 to 2029.
But it’s a job fewer people want to do. Utah fire officials told KSL TV they used to have lists of people excited to sign up to be a wildland firefighter. Those days are gone.
A Fire Year, Not A Fire Season
Utah’s fire season isn’t what it used to be, as population growth pushes development into more urban-wildland interface areas. “We’re seeing more and more fires on the doorstep of communities,” said Jason Porter, assistant fire management officer for the Green River Bureau of Land Management District.
On top of development, changing climate and extensive drought have created more destructive blazes, with fire season starting earlier and lasting longer.
“We’ve stopped using the term ‘fire season’ long ago,” said Porter.
Typically, Utah’s fire season lasted from June 1 through Oct. 31. This year, Utah saw its first wildfire in March, with more than 155 blazes ignited before the end of April. This extension of fire season means firefighters are working a longer fire year instead.
Long, Hot Hours For Little Pay
Porter would know. He’s been fighting wildfires since 1999 and loves the job. “I love the travel aspect of it,” he explained. “I’ve seen places I couldn’t have ever imagined going on my own.”
Porter admitted it takes a special kind of person to be a wildland firefighter. “You can just imagine the exertion your body is going through on a normal day,” explained Porter. “Now add heat to it, you’re packing a chainsaw up the hill, your bags. You know, a lot of people question ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you sleeping in the dirt?’”
Porter described working on a wildland fire crew as a brotherhood with high values. “Duty, respect and integrity. It’s something we teach our firefighters from day one.”
The job is time-consuming. Porter said most crews are sent out for two weeks at a time, with only a couple of days off in between during a busy fire year.
“If you just stay in that cycle, it’s definitely going to take a toll on the body,” he said. “Not just physically, but emotionally. Mentally.”
KSL TV analyzed fire technician salaries from 2020 and found the median take-home pay for a Level 1 Fire Tech was $24,106, or $11.59 hourly. That included overtime pay. The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands told KSL firefighters work 1,080 regular work hours and about 1,000 overtime hours. That’s about a year’s worth of full-time work in six to eight months.
We found only four people in the state’s database who had achieved the most senior Fire Tech Level 4 title. Their median pay was $32.51 per hour last year.
Porter indicated the Bureau of Land Management starts their firefighters at $13.45 per hour. KSL TV found many jobs paying a better starting salary without the physical demands, including employers like Amazon, eBay and Krispy Kreme.
“We’ve got to make some changes,” said Porter. “We’ve got to keep people doing this because the need for this service isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”
‘You Can’t Even Beg People to Come’
Brett Ostler is the state fire management officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He said they’re seeing fewer people interested in the job, as well as fewer qualified candidates.
“I think the bottom line is pay,” he theorized. “I mean, you’ve got to make a living for your family. You’ve got to be able to support yourself. Without that, you might as well be looking for something where you can do that.”
We reached out to Ostler’s division, the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service with questions about their firefighter staffing. All told us they’re able to adequately staff positions. The federal agencies indicated areas with greater salary versus cost of living differentials tend to create vacancies.
All told us funding for firefighter salaries has remained flat for several years. On a federal level, a recent injection of funding meant NPS will be hiring more than 200 new firefighting positions. President Joe Biden also recently promised an increase of base starting salary to a $15 hourly minimum.
Ostler said Utah lawmakers haven’t made any material changes to firefighter salaries since the early 2000s. That may be changing soon, thanks to recent legislation that passed in the 2021 session.
HB65, sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, authorized a small one-time pay increase for certain fire careers. HB252, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, initiated a study of federal, state and municipal firefighter salaries that will inform pay increases for Utah firefighters.
Cooperative Firefighting Related To Resource Strain
Ostler told KSL more changes will likely be coming in terms of how fire crews are staffed to deal with the longer fire seasons. Many of Utah’s resources for fighting wildfires come from cooperative agreements with federal partners.
“The state of Utah does not manage any aviation resources,” Ostler explained. “We rely on our federal partners for all the aviation contracts in the state to fight fire.”
Interagency firefighting is something Ostler said Utah does well. But sharing resources means firefighters sometimes get stretched too thin in active fire years.
“We’re already nationally at a planning level of four,” he explained. “When we get to five, it means that resources are just not available, and we’ll start doing what we have to with our resources to stretch them.”
For firefighters, that can mean 21-day stretches in a fire camp, or personnel leaving Utah to help fight more intense fires elsewhere in the West.
Despite challenges, Ostler said he is hopeful coming changes will help prevent firefighter burnout and retain good employees.
“We’ve had some discussions with some of our representatives,” he said. “They’re fully supportive of what we’re doing. We just really need to sit down and look at how we strategize moving the wildland fire program in the state into the future.”
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