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US seeks to bolster firefighter ranks as wildfires increase

FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2020 file photo Cal Fire Battalion Chief Craig Newell carries a hose while battling the North Complex Fire in Plumas National Forest, Calif. U.S. wildfire managers are considering shifting from seasonal firefighting crews to full-time, year-round crews to deal with what has become a year-round wildfire season and to make wildland firefighting jobs more attractive by increasing pay and benefits. U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French, testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said Thursday, June 24, 2021 agencies will seek to convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent, full-time, year-round workers. (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. wildfire managers are considering shifting from seasonal to full-time firefighting crews to deal with what has become a year-round wildfire season and making the jobs more attractive by increasing pay and benefits.

There’s a push in Congress to increase firefighter pay and convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent, full-time, year-round workers.

It comes as fires raging in Western states parched by severe drought have burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,300 square kilometers) this year.

That's ahead of the pace in 2020, which ultimately saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned as well as more than 17,000 homes and other structures destroyed.

U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that firefighters need to be paid more in recognition of the growing workload.

The year-round firefighters could also remove brush and other hazardous fuels when not battling wildfires. French said the Forest Service treats 3 million acres annually, but to make progress would need to treat two to four times that much in the 193 million acres it manages.

He called for a “paradigm shift” in forest management to address the impacts of climate change.

“We have a crisis," French said while testifying on a infrastructure bill sponsored by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. “We must address it at the scale of the problem, and bring long term relief to our firefighters, our communities and our forests.”

The challenge has grown in recent decades as more homes are built where urban and wildland areas meet, forcing wildland firefighters to protect the structures.

President Joe Biden recently called for an increase in firefighter pay from $13 an hour.

“That's a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters,” he said.

Firefighters can often boost pay by working overtime, a regular occurrence on bad fire years.

Increased pay for firefighters was included in infrastructure legislation sponsored by Manchin, the chair of the energy and natural resources committee and a key swing vote in the evenly divided Senate.

Manchin was among a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers who announced a deal Thursday with Biden on a pared-down version of the administration’s plan.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, also in the group, said the package would contain money for “wildfire resilience” programs but was unclear on whether raises for firefighters were included. If it’s not in the bill, Tester said it would be addressed through the agency budget process.

“This is dangerous work, folks need to be paid for it. We’re going to need to hire people to do this work,” he said.

Still, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said they face a potential shortage of firefighters this year because the $13 starting wage isn’t enough.

“There’s not technically a shortage of firefighters because we always overprepare,” said Jessica Gardetto, a fire center spokeswoman with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and a former wildland firefighter. “But it’s a concern right now. We're seeing people taking jobs at local businesses that pay the same or more than starting fire positions.”

She also said the length of time firefighters spend in the field has been increasing. That can be a problem for seasonal firefighters who are college students and need to get back to class.

“In the past we had fire seasons, now we have fire years,” she said.

Officials at the center on Tuesday raised the national preparedness level to 4 on a 1-5 scale, the second earliest dating back to 1990. The primary reason is the drought will likely make it harder to put out fires and strain firefighting resources.

“We don’t know what kind of support we’re going to be able to get from other agencies,” said Sharla Arledge, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands that is responsible for protecting state and some federal land. “It's a tinderbox out there.”

More than 90% of the U.S. West is in drought. Forecasters expect the drought will persist at least through September across most of the region.

The nation's wildland firefighting system is a network of local, state and federal agencies, and in Idaho has grown to include a unique program where ranchers are trained and given equipment to keep wildfires small until help arrives. The vast majority of wildfires are put out within days, but some grow to thousands of acres and draw hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand firefighters.

The concern is calls for help would go unanswered if multiple large fires across the West use all firefighters and equipment.

Major blazes that raged in Oregon, California, Washington and other states in 2020 revealed how stretched thin the ranks of firefighters have become. By September, with more than 30,000 firefighters deployed, there were so many fires burning that hundreds of requests for help went unfulfilled as agencies scrambled to get enough firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.

Firefighters from across the U.S. and other countries including Canada and Israel were summoned to help fill the personnel shortage.

Idaho officials have been battling to retain state wildland firefighters that are sometimes poached by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agencies after gaining some on-the-ground experience. Starting pay for an Idaho wildland firefighter is $12.55 an hour.

As of Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center said almost 9,000 firefighters are battling fires, including 43 uncontained large fires. About 80% of wildfires annually are started by people, often while enjoying outdoor activities or using fireworks.

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Brown reported from Billings, Montana.