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Fighting for Firefighters

Stanford experts on wildfire-related policy discuss what Congress can do to build a strong, resilience-focused wildland firefighting force to contend with increasingly catastrophic wildfires.

Matt Gush / iStock

Increasingly catastrophic wildfires across the western U.S. are tragic evidence of a failing approach. A Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to extend a federal wildland firefighter pay increase is a reminder that these essential frontline workers remain overworked, underpaid, inadequately trained, and unprepared to help landscapes and communities become more resilient, according to a new Stanford University white paperThe paper outlines potential solutions, ranging from increased mental health services to a renewed focus on forest stewardship.

A mix of fire suppression policies, climate change, and other factors have created a landscape that is more susceptible to large and destructive wildfires. Wildfires across the U.S. have more than doubled in average size since the 1990s, and wildfire seasons stretch 80 days longer than they were in the 1970s. Wildfire staffing has not kept pace: last year, the U.S. Forest Service was unable to hire about 10% of the seasonal firefighters it needed, and an estimated 20% of the agency’s permanent firefighter positions were vacant. Our approach hasn’t kept pace either: while the costs and risks associated with catastrophic wildfires have grown, investment in promoting resilience to wildfire has been lagging.

Below, white paper coauthors Michael Wara and Cassandra Jurenci, discuss what policymakers can do to build a strong, resilience-focused wildland firefighting force. Wara recently testified before Congress about issues facing wildfire responders, and Jurenci led a student team of researchers in developing these recommendations. Wara is director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. Jurenci is a wildfire legal fellow in the Environmental & Natural Resources Law & Policy Program at the Stanford Law School.

What might the average person be surprised to learn about wildland firefighters and the conditions they face?

Jurenci: People might be surprised to learn that despite the urgent need for this workforce to expand, federal firefighter pay has remained grossly deficient and uncompetitive, the availability of housing for firefighters stationed in wildlands is tenuous, and accessing health care that is responsive to firefighters’ specific needs is difficult.

What should policymakers focus on as top priorities for building a wildland firefighting force able and ready to focus on making landscapes and communities more resilient to wildfire? 

Wara: Right now, we have to keep the force we have intact. That means urgent fixes to wildland fire compensation and benefits. Without them, we will see the continued loss of the mid-level personnel that are the heart of the force and its future leadership.

You write that one of the best ways to support the federal firefighting workforce is to focus on wildfire resilience. What do you mean by that?

Jurenci: Firefighters are straining under the effects that a century of federal fire suppression policy has had on wildfire behavior. Returning fire to fire-adapted ecosystems, by conducting prescribed burns for example, and assisting communities with adapting to fire risk, will build wildfire resilience in ecosystems and communities by creating conditions that allow us to live with fire and lessen the impacts of catastrophic wildfires when they occur – including the impacts on firefighters.

You recommend a federal study to help bring together a “patchwork system” of federal wildfire management across all agencies. What is an example of this patchwork system that illustrates inefficiency / inadequacy?

Wara: All federal land managers have their own wildland fire teams. They are currently coordinated but this coordination - as well as coordination with state and local fire - creates needless complication and inefficiency. 

You recommend establishing a federal entity focused on stewardship efforts, such as forest resilience and prescribed burns. Why is it important for that entity to have separate funding from fire management efforts focused on suppression?

Wara: Too often, fire suppression siphons both personnel and resources away from wildfire resilience efforts - unless there is clear separation between the two. Dual use, in an emergency, which is more and more of the time in wildland fire, becomes emergency response. 

What are some of the pressing mental health issues in the federal firefighting workforce, and how are resources inadequate to deal with them?

Jurenci: As one example, mental health provider services such as counseling can be limited to only a handful of sessions which is wholly inadequate for addressing conditions like PTSD and depression that require longer-term care. Finding mental healthcare providers who are adequately trained to respond to the unique experiences firefighters have is also difficult. These issues can be partially addressed by expanding mental healthcare leave and the services and programming offered to firefighters, including by accommodating longer-term care by trauma-informed practitioners. 

How can the federal government encourage collaboration in stewardship work and other nonsuppression-based land management among federal, state, local, and tribal agencies? 

Jurenci: Collaborating with tribal governments in this space in a way that respects traditional ecological knowledge and doesn’t infringe on tribal sovereignty is critical. Within the federal government itself, agencies must also be able to coordinate stewardship efforts without feeling siloed. This collaboration and coordination across governments could be more easily achieved if fire management at the federal level was housed within one wildfire management body.

The report was produced by scholars with the Smoke: Wildfire Science and Policy Practicum, a collaboration between the Stanford Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. Lead authors of the white papers are Abigail Varney, and Samuel Wallace-Perdomo. Coauthors of the paper include Deborah Sivas, Michael Mastrandrea, Jessica Yu, and Eric Macomber.

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