USA — Some US Forest Service firefighters say there are not enough of them to battle the next large wildfire, but fire officials say their staffing levels are fine.
The US Forest Service was called before Congress to explain why they appear to have difficulty keeping their firefighters. Days ago, the Forest Service released findings saying there are no staffing problems. Some in the rank and file are calling that official report a “whitewash.”
US Forest Service firefighters Douglas Donahoo and Ryan Gonzalez are some of the younger firefighters on duty these days. Their job is to protect local mountains and valleys daily. As the wildfire season approaches, they recall why they joined the Forest Service not long ago.
“I actually grew up with a lot of the retired captains and engineers, and they told me it was a great job for the summer to make some money,” Donahoo recalls. “I ended up coming in and falling in love with it.”
Keeping fire engines staffed is vital to prevent the next Esperanza or Sawtooth fires.
But one firefighter’s association is saying there’s a problem keeping young firefighters, with the Forest Service losing as many as half of the entry-level firefighters.
“We’re losing folks to other agencies for better pay and better benefits. But we’re also losing them because they have a sense that their employment agency, the Forest Service, with all due respect, just doesn’t give a damn about them,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.
The recent report from the US Forest Service fires right back, saying there is no problem and that they are still responding to wildfires just as fast as ever. It does admit that there is a morale problem that needs to be addressed by the agency’s leadership.
The local San Bernardino National Forest appears to have the largest number of temporary firefighters drifting away from the US Forest Service.
“In many cases, engines that should be available for staffing and response seven days a week were cut down to five days a week,” said Judd.
Keeping these younger firefighters is the new priority for the US Forest Service in the hopes they will make their careers here.
“Eventually, I’d like to see myself in the captain’s position…I just want to keep learning, keep experiencing fires,” Gonzales says. “You learn the best when you’re out there so, I just look forward to going to more fires, just promote up the ladder, eventually having my own crew.”
The U.S. Forest Service is continuing their controlled burns in the areas near Idyllwild and Garner Valley through the start of fire season this May.