Forestry Department is in a hurry to hire enough firefighters ahead of the wildfire season

The US Forest Department is struggling to reach its recruitment goals ahead of this summer’s fire season, but in some areas it is only halfway towards the goal.

Overall, the Department of Agriculture has made great strides in filling long-standing vacancies, reaching 90% of the goal of maintaining a workforce of 11,300 firefighters. The Department of Forestry has reduced non-firefighter executives by 40% over the last 15 years, Randy Moore, head of the authorities, told the Senate Expenditure Committee on Wednesday. The Forest Department aims to increase the workforce to replace half of the 8,000 employees lost in recent years.

Moore has made some progress in restructuring rolls, but admitted that some areas are only half of the staffing target.

Senator Jeff Markery (D-Ore.), Who chairs the Interior Subcommittee that held the hearing on Wednesday, said:

Congress has provided a total of $ 5.5 billion to the Forest Department under a recent infrastructure law, securing $ 1 billion for firefighter salaries and costs. At the behest of President Biden, federal firefighters are now earning at least $ 15 an hour.Infrastructure law has advanced further Providing a permanent salary increase Change to firefighters, and many of them from seasonal positions to full-time positions. It has also established a new wilderness firefighter status in place of the more common “Forestry Engineers” category that previously worked.

Still, Moore said his agency struggled to compete with county, state, and private employers hiring firefighters. He said many Forestry Department offers were declined.

“There is a lot of competition in the labor market for these skills,” Moore said.

He said he was confident that his agency would be ready, but continued employment until July, hiring contract workers, and an emergency fire department known as an “administratively determined” employee. He said he could have a fighter on board. The Forest Department is also adding capabilities to grants and contract teams to build better partnerships to help with fire protection and mitigation work.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and top Republican on the internal budget panel have expressed skepticism in the plan and are now hiring for any job, not to mention particularly difficult positions like firefighters in the wilderness. Said it was difficult.

“We hope we will be able to meet the people we need when we anticipate a tough fire season,” Murkowski said.

Max Alonzo, a former forestry firefighter who represents the national operations of the National Federation of Employees, a union that represents many FS employees, said: Government executives He gave little comfort to the agency, claiming it was at 90% of its staffing target. Every year, firefighters sign up for work, but never show up after they find a better payment opportunity or quit a week later, he said.

“There isn’t enough incentive to keep people,” Alonzo said. “They make almost nothing and can’t see their families. [during fire season] And they will not be able to support their family. ”

He praised the Biden administration for raising the minimum wage for federal firefighters, but said $ 15 an hour was “too little, too late.” Infrastructure law has allowed the Department of Forestry to raise wages up to $ 20,000 a year for positions in areas that are difficult to hire or maintain, but the Department of Forestry has not yet implemented those increases. .. The delay has further annoyed staff, according to Alonzo, and has not yet revealed when the service will make changes.

Forest Director Moore acknowledged that the measures taken by Congress and the administration were not sufficiently advanced and promised to work with lawmakers to find a longer-term solution.

Meanwhile, firefighters are still struggling. One of the Wyoming-based hotshot teams, the federal government’s most elite wilderness firefighters team, said Alonzo said the majority of its members lived in cars outside the district office. rice field. Their team leader had to negotiate with the agency to install a toilet in the parking lot.

Jonathon Golden, a former firefighter at the Forest Department and Land Management Department, now consulting with grassroots wild firefighters, is at the current level of personnel, even with Moore’s rosy outlook at Wednesday’s hearing. He said he revealed that there was still a hole in the fire. Moore said recruitment would continue until July, but Golden questioned how successful it would be and what would happen after that date if the goal wasn’t met yet.

“The applicant pool doesn’t get as robust as the number of rounds increases,” says Golden. “We haven’t left the forest yet.” Forestry Department is in a hurry to hire enough firefighters ahead of the wildfire season

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