House committee hears testimony on forest fire workforce reforms
Much of Wednesday’s two-and-a-half-hour hearing before the House of Representatives’ natural resources subcommittee on wildland firefighter compensation turned into rants about vaccine mandates and forest management. However, quality time was always devoted to improving the pay and benefits of firefighters and the general improvement of working conditions and workforce management in fire extinguishing. fire. The whole audience can be viewed on YouTube.
The two bills under consideration were HR 4274 Wilderness Firefighters Fair Remuneration Act, and HR 5631 Tim Hart Wildlands Firefighters Classification and Equal Pay Act. Brief descriptions of both bills can be found in the article we published on October 26.
Two representatives from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters gave five-minute presentations in addition to their written testimony. Kelly Martin, President, was on hand in the courtroom, while Vice President Lucas Tanner Mayfield appeared virtually. They both made their case for passing legislation to improve workforce recruitment and retention and to make changes that would allow firefighters to earn a living wage.
Two administration employees also testified, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy head of the forest service for the state and private forestry, and Jeff Rupert, director of the Interior Department’s wildland fire office. They were both asked, how many firefighters do you have? The responses were “just over 10,000” in the FS and 5,300 in the DOI. In addition, a representative from the forestry community was present, Matt Dias, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association.
In response to a question about the distribution of permanent and seasonal firefighters, Ms Hall-Rivera said that it is currently around 60% permanent and 40% seasonal in the FS, and the goal is to make it 80% permanent and 20% seasonal. She said the FS needs more firefighters, including those who are tech and analytical specialists.
Ms Hall-Rivera also mentioned a concept that was new to me until we published an article on October 20 by Tim Swedberg that suggested that top teams move from current teams of 20 to 30, so when 20 people would be deployed, 10 would stay at the base and visit their homes every night.
“We need to have bigger teams,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said, “so people can take time off so they can rest and have a work / life balance. This means that we will need more firefighters. “
Representative Katie Porter from California said, “As fires get more unpredictable, we’re just going to need more people. It’s just a fact. She asked, “How many more firefighters are we talking about, 100, or double the force of 10,000 to 20,000?”
Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have a number but would come back to the committee with details.
Mr. Rupert of DOI, when asked the same question, said: “We’re in the middle of an assessment to really try to put good numbers behind the optimal need.”
The written testimony from the Forest Service has said three times that specific provisions of the bill would be problematic. For example, the increase in wages “will drastically reduce the number of firefighters employed by the forest service”. And, the creation of a Wildland Firefighter Health Database, Wildland Firefighter Mental Health Program, Mental Health Leave and Presumption of Illness Policy for Firefighters. de Wildland “will reduce the funding available for forest fire suppression operations.”
The committee chair, Rep. Joe Neguse, asked if the temporary salary increase and rewards for lower level firefighters this year have helped with retention and recruitment.
“The incentives we put in place this year have been a morale boost,” said Hall-Rivera. “I know our firefighters appreciated them. It’s probably a little too early to say if they have an impact on our firefighters this year, but those kinds of incentives and kinds of reforms will have a positive impact, I believe.
Democrats on the committee mainly spoke and asked about issues with the two laws that were the subject of the hearing. Some Republicans also briefly mentioned these issues, but spent most of their time discussing vaccine mandates, forest management, and how they felt wilderness areas and environmental laws restricted certain activities. Management. They underlined their diversionary tactic by sitting in front of five large posters that appeared to confuse firefighter safety with forest management or logging. Forest management can mean different things to different stakeholders. These can include prescribed burning, thinning and removal of vegetation near communities, or logging.
Arkansas Rep Bruce Westerman asked about fuel treatments; “Can we make a difference with axes, shovels and rakes or will it have to be a large-scale mechanized planned approach?” “
“[It] is the only way to move forward and create safer communities and places for our firefighters to fight fires, ”said Hall-Rivera. “We need strategically placed treatments, they have to be in the right places and they have to scale to the problem. Fires overtake our treatment of fuels, even those that help us. They have to be bigger and we have to use all the tools in the toolbox. It’s mechanical treatment, it’s herbicides, it’s mulching, it’s prescribed burning and natural burning where it makes sense. We must have all the tools at our disposal to make a difference.
“We need to process an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost as much as $ 20 billion or more,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said.
Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib raised the issue of “homeless firefighters” who don’t earn enough money to pay rent, so they live off their cars.
Representative Obernolte said he was pro-vaccine but against vaccination mandates, which he said “would really hamper our efforts over the next 12 months to fight the forest fires. I think we could lose a significant portion of our federal firefighter workforce. “
Ms Martin said: “We Grassroots Wildland firefighters haven’t heard the alarm, if you will, that there are a lot of forest firefighters out there who don’t want to be vaccinated. What we are hearing though is that there are people who fear that are in a task force that if someone is not vaccinated they can end up getting sick and the whole crew is put on. in quarantine, they are not allowed to be deployed on fire missions … also [would have] an impact on our response capacities.
Summarizing the hearing, Ranker Russ Fulcher from Idaho said, “There is no question that compensation is important. It is an essential part of all work and I do not deny it in any way. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the fundamental problem we face here on the ground is the fuel load.
A spectator in the audience put on a show, frequently being in the background of the camera shots while wearing a torn face mask, constantly and vigorously chewing gum.
The article was edited to show that the article on the 30-person teams was written by Tim Swedberg, not John Culbertson. We regret the error.