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Forestry technician aims to demystify the plight of federal firefighters

Facing some of the deadliest wildfire seasons in recent history, wildland firefighters are in high demand. In a personal essay for Grist, forestry technician Zora Thomas writes about the work of firefighters and their most pressing needs. Thomas says wildland firefighters are underpaid and experiencing a lack of retention. Thomas joins us to share what she thinks firefighters need and how they can be better supported.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Wildland firefighters are facing some of the largest and most dangerous fires in recent history. The Bootleg Fire remains the biggest in the US. It’s burned over 400,000 acres and is just over half contained. All over the West, fires are managed by a variety of agencies. Firefighter Zora Thomas, her official title is Forestry Technician, works for the U.S. Forest Service. She says she and her fellow federal Wildland firefighters are underpaid compared with other firefighters battling the same fires under the same conditions. She wrote about her experiences recently in Grist. Our Senior Producer, Allison Frost, spoke to Zora Thomas in between fire assignments.

Allison Frost: You’re on a two day break right now. Where did you just come from?

Zora Thomas: I just came from Montana and I’m actually on a three day break right now because we just got word from the new Chief of the Forest Service that we get three days every time we do a full 14 now, which is super awesome. We’re very excited about it.

Frost: That’s great. That’s up from a two day break.

Thomas: Yes. Up from a two day break in really night and day difference. That third day is pretty sweet.

Frost: When you wrote the Grist article, I believe you were referring to your first season last fall. You were describing the effect on your body working an 18 hour shift, fighting fires. What is that like physically?

Thomas: It can definitely be very tiring. I think our standard shift is a 16, but sometimes we’ll pull what we call a party shift, which can go up to 35 hours or so. You’re definitely tired by the end. ut it really varies. I think it would be unfair to say that every shift is really brutal. They’re not all crazy. Sometimes they’re mellower than others. Just depends on what you’re doing.

Frost: What is your perception and your day to day experience of having the resources that you need to fight these fires? Do you feel like you’ve got what you need, your team has got what you need?

Thomas: I think that I’m very lucky in terms of my crew. I have a crew that is very focused on retaining people, on taking care of their people. My Sup is great. All of our overhead, I think they really do things right as much as they possibly can. On a larger scale, what I’ve observed in my very short tenure is that we often find ourselves in situations on fires where we have something that we wish we could do, but we don’t have the resources to accomplish it. So they’ll say, we want you to strip this ridgeline and put in a big piece of indirect. We’re going to burn off of that and that’s going to catch the fire or whatever. But we only have one crew to accomplish that and it’s five miles of line and we need it done in two days and it’s just not going to happen. Basically people say, if we had five more hotshot crews and all these other resources and whatever, maybe we could get that done. But it seems like often we’re in a situation where we’re kind of hurting for the resources we need.

Frost: Why do you think that is when wildfires are growing worse and worse? And we hear about them all the time obviously because they threaten lives, property, not just from the firefighters fighting like yourself, but obviously from people who live there and businesses and the land, of course.

Thomas: I’m not an expert and I don’t represent the agency and I’m sure there’s a lot about this stuff that I don’t know. I kind of just took an interest in learning more about policy issues this winter because I had some downtime. But from what I’ve learned and from what I’ve been told and just from what I’ve been able to observe, I think really the root of the problem is the pay disparity between Wildland Firefighters or Forestry Technicians who worked for the feds and then most other firefighting agencies, especially in the Western states. I think there are other parts of the country where there it’s more of an equal distribution in pay between, say, a state or municipal firefighter and a federal firefighter. But in the West, and particularly in California, although increasingly in the rest of the West, because the cost of living is increasing, we just make a lot less money than pretty much anyone else you’re going to find on a wildland incident. I think it’s a fraction really, like we probably make about half as much as Calfire at an entry level position. I think the biggest problem is that that discrepancy just increases as people move forward in their careers. So it comes to a point where someone has to make the decision, am I going to stick with the Feds and be making a lot less comfortable living and be really putting my body through a lot and be putting my family through a lot? You’re gone a huge amount which many firefighters are. That’s not exclusive to the feds, but it takes a huge toll on people. The money just doesn’t make sense basically to stay with the feds unless you have a kind of moral conviction about doing the job in that way and I think that’s why we’re losing people.

Frost: You referenced the agency and then the agencies. I imagine that is related to this pay discrepancy. Can you just break that down for us a little bit? Tell us all of these agencies that are involved in fighting fires.

Thomas: As far as I’ve observed, there’s the Feds which is mainly the Forest Service, the BLM, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I think there’s a couple other federal agencies that have either Forestry Technicians or Range Technicians who they employ under that designation, but they act as Wildland firefighters. So I’m one of those. I’m a Forestry Technician and then there are state agencies like Calfire and then there’s municipal agencies, county fire departments, city fire departments and all of those will be involved in Wildland incidents, particularly as our fire seasons get so much worse.You see a lot of strike teams of municipal engines come out to Wildland incidents. So all of those people will be on an incident working for the same IC, the same divisions, the same operations chiefs, but they are paid very differently and their duties and their capabilities and their responsibilities vary pretty drastically on Wildland incidents.

Frost: One of the things that I’ve read about is that just there, you’re losing some of the most experienced firefighters and that attrition is may be hard to keep up with. How have you seen that play out in your experience?

Thomas: I think that’s definitely a big part of the problem that we’re facing. In my very short tenure, I have seen that like the people who seem to on track to be in leadership positions to start helping to run a crew or people that are already running crew, those are the people that you sometimes lose because they have these far, far higher paid options elsewhere. I think that also coincides with they’ve been in that career for a little while and I mentioned in the article, for me in my twenties with no real responsibilities or anything, it’s great and I don’t have a ton to worry about. But as you get a little older and you want to have a family and you’re tired of not seeing your wife and kids for six months at a time, and then also simultaneously not having the financial stability to really provide securely for them. I think that that’s a big part of the reason why we lose people that are in those really important positions where they could be of huge value to the agency, but the agency is unable to provide for them enough to keep them.

rost: All these issues that you raised, including the pay disparity and resources, these have been raised as I understand internally for many, many years, but as far as people speaking out publicly about it, that’s been a relatively recent phenomenon. Why do you think that is?

Thomas: Part of that is just kind of like the ethos of federal fire is people are very hesitant to do anything that could be perceived as complaining. But I think that as the cost of living becomes so much greater than federal firefighters can afford, it’s become kind of necessary for people to advocate for themselves a little bit.

Frost: As you no doubt know, President Biden has pledged more resources for firefighting. When you hear that, what questions immediately come to mind for you?

Thomas: I think the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s great that there’s even engagement with this kind of stuff. It’s a massively unprecedented level of political attention that’s going towards federal firefighters and their issues right now. Even at the beginning of my career, three years ago, you would not have heard the President or Senators, or anyone really, talking about this stuff all that much. The main thing that comes to mind is that it’s just to start. It’s a great first step. I don’t think it’s going to be adequate to keep the Forest Service and the other federal agencies functioning at the level that they need to function at. So the bonuses that they’re talking about are awesome. And certainly no one’s going to say no to them and it’s great that they’re even engaging with these issues. But what they’ve talked about so far is not enough to stem the tide of attrition that we’re seeing in the federal workforce, in my opinion.

Frost: Well, where are you headed to next after your short break that you’re on right now?

Thomas: I don’t know. We don’t usually know until kind of like the night before our R and R is over. We’ll get an assignment. My captain will text me. She’ll tell me where we’re off to. So I’m not sure yet. So we’ll probably end up on the Plumas or the Klamath, something like that.

Frost: Well, best of luck to you, Zora. Thank you so much.

Thomas: Thank you so much for having me.

Miller:  Zora Thomas is a Hotshot Firefighter, technically a Forestry Technician, with the U.S. Forest Service. She spoke with our Senior Producer, Allison Frost earlier this week.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kanani Cortez