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Why Is the U.S. Facing a Federal Firefighter Shortage?

The shortage is part of an ongoing dilemma as the government struggles to budget and plan for longer, more severe fire seasons.
Firefighters battle the Medocino Complex Fire on August 7th, 2018, near Lodoga, California.

Firefighters battle the Medocino Complex Fire on August 7th, 2018, near Lodoga, California.

With peak fire season looming, a shortage of wildland firefighters could leave national parks and forests strapped for resources. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that the Department of the Interior (DOI) is short hundreds of firefighters this year. The agency, which had expected to have a firefighting staff of around 5,000 for the 2019 fire season, only has 4,500 and "no plans to hire more," according to the Times.

One cause for the shortage is the nation's low unemployment rate—which, at 3.6 percent, is the lowest it's been in nearly 50 years. This low rate has led to fewer people seeking seasonal work, especially work as physically and emotionally demanding as firefighting.

The 35-day government shutdown in December and January was another contributing factor to the shortage. The longest shutdown in government history brought firefighter training programs to a halt. Training workshops that had been in the works for months were canceled, slowing the hiring process, and reducing the number of firefighters with the qualifications to step into leadership roles. According to the Times, a memo from the DOI this spring revealed officials had fallen behind in recruiting and hiring both seasonal and full-time wildland fire employees following the shutdown.

Kelly Martin, the chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite National Park, told the Times she is currently overseeing only 28 firefighters in the park, and that some of her employees have had to take on responsibilities that would normally be shared among two to three people. Martin said that it's the most understaffed the park has been since she began working there in 2006.

While the DOI is just one of the federal and state agencies that work together in wildland firefighting efforts, the shortage illustrates an ongoing dilemma as the government struggles to budget and plan for longer, more severe fire seasons.

In another example of the struggle to meet the demand for firefighting resources, changes in federal contracts for firefighting aircraft have led to a shortage of available air support to fight fire even as the demand increases. Incident commanders requesting air support last year had many of their requests go unfilled.

This trend can be seen at the local level too, as requests for engines and manpower during peak fire season increasingly go unanswered. Last year in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, during a single five-day period, requests for more than 900 fire engines from commanders around California were unfilled.

For the firefighting staff left working, the strain is apparent. Longer shifts and chronic exhaustion have become more widespread in the industry. Last year, Rick Swan, director of wildland firefighting safety and response for the International Association of Fire Fighters, told NPR that fighting fires back to back had become the new normal. "We've got members today doing 32 days, taking two days off, and going back for another 30 days," Swan told NPR.

The high-stress job is taking its toll on the mental health of firefighters. Across the country, the severity of recent fire seasons has drawn attention to the number of firefighters who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or die by suicide. At a hearing in California in May, fire officials told state lawmakers they needed more mental-health support for emergency fire workers, as well as more firefighting staff overall.

The good news, if there is any, is that this year's fire season, which the National Interagency Fire Center predicts will peak in August, is off to a much slower start than in recent years. This year to date there have been slightly more than 24,000 fires across nearly 2.5 million acres—significantly less than the average of nearly 35,000 fires over 3.5 million acres observed by this date in the previous 10 years.

Alaska, where 74 large fires are currently burning, accounts for more than three-quarters of the total area affected by fire so far this year.