As children in northern Illinois, my siblings and I hardly considered collecting leaves from our yard a chore. The promise of lighting the pile on fire and seeing it go up in flames at the end of the day was a reward. My love of fire has remained a core value over the years, influencing my professional development, education and the land management methods for which I’ve advocated during my 35 years at the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service and, now in retirement, with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Since the beginning of my career in 1984, the National Park Service has led the industry in incorporating fire into land management planning. Wildfires release nutrients into the soil, promote seed germination, improve forest diversity and sustain critical habitats for wildlife.
During my career as the chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park, I witnessed how wildfires led to the flush of nutrients needed for the new growth of wildflowers; the sprouting of giant sequoia seedlings; and the inception and transformation of diverse wildlife habitats. These experiences allow me to understand the essential role of fire in maintaining healthy ecosystems — and appreciating our wildland firefighters.
Despite their many benefits, wildfires remain dangerous and destructive events that climate change exacerbates. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of wildfires with more intense and prolonged droughts, more flammable vegetation, and higher seasonal temperatures that make forests more likely to burn rapidly and unpredictably.
When prescribed burns — fires intentionally set to burn forest litter and dead vegetation that could act as fuel for wildfires — are combined with other fire-suppression techniques, they can decrease the severity of wildfires by up to 72 percent. But homeowners have tried to minimize controlled fires in land management, citing threats to life, property, and natural resources. However, oppressing wildfires while ignoring their use as an essentially natural process has only worsened their effects.
From 1985 to 1999, the annual average for federal wildfire suppression costs in the United States hovered at $425 million. Between 2000 and 2019, it jumped to $1.6 billion, and in 2021, it exceeded $4.4 billion. The current reactive focus on fire suppression detracts financial resources and human capital from the already limited workforce available to advance proactive land-management techniques enhancing forest resilience to climate change.
The United States is experiencing some of the worst recorded wildfires and droughts in its history, and wildland firefighters stand at the forefront of this crisis. They are drained of resources and still being asked to do more — and risk more — than ever before, all while being paid wages lower than their municipal- and state-level counterparts. These conditions are unsustainable and have led to physical harm, elevated and untreated problems of sleep deprivation, alcohol use disorder, depression and suicide. Firefighters are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty.
The Biden administration has made progress addressing this crisis by committing to a minimum wage raise for federal firefighters, establishing retention incentives, and offering bonuses for seasonal workers. But there is much more that needs to be done to reform the federal firefighting workforce and its resources. Proposed legislation such as the “Tim’s Act” would provide adequate compensation and classification, mental health leave, education, training, and other essentials for workforce retention and safer conditions.
The wildfires I am witnessing today are not the same wildfires I grew up seeing. Climate change is making them more intense, dangerous and difficult to control. As Congress works in 2022, they must consider lasting legislation that supports the federal wildland firefighters on the front lines.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated needed funding for forest restoration work, including $5.16 billion to better defend our forests through practices like prescribed burns. But the firefighters who will be essential in implementing these practices must be paid competitive wages and receive the necessary training, leave and other vital benefits. This will lead to a more robust workforce, which is desperately needed to tackle the increasingly longer and higher intensity wildfire seasons due mainly to climate change.