Forest fires rage this year. Firefighters quitting in droves. The federal government is to blame?
While the woke complain about climate change, the air quality in the Western United States is going down the shitter partly because the Federal Gov can't get off their ass and hire sufficient fire fighters (& provide sufficient equipment). These poor guys are so overworked and underpaid their quitting making the problem a lot worse.
What's sad is that if fire fighting crews had the proper manpower, most of these fire could be contained while they're small and manageable.
In fact the largest Calif fire this year was only about 5 acres at start. Because of lack of resources fire crews were told to go elsewhere for 48 hours at which point the fire had quickly grown to 200 acres and was out of control. This rest is history.
Considering the money the Federales has wasted on the pandemic bail out and paying people NOT to work, for pennies they could pay people to fight forrest fires before they become disasters and a threat to clean air.
Jason Schroeder Battled Wildfires for 20 Years. Can He Finally Quit?
As Western forest blazes intensify, a parallel crisis is unfolding: Federal crew members fighting them are leaving the front lines in droves. ‘I had to draw a line in the sand.’
‘It gets in your blood,’ says Jason Schroeder; on the job as crew superintendent in May.
By Marc Vartabedian, WSJ
Nov. 20, 2021 11:37 am ET
After two decades fighting wildfires across the American West, Jason Schroeder wanted out. He submitted his resignation following a brutal 2019 fire season.
He loved leading a crew of mostly young veterans—many had fought in Afghanistan or Iraq—taking them deep into forests and atop mountain ridges to stop blazes. They battled explosive fires that often leapt out of the wilderness to scorch entire neighborhoods. His family endured lengthier absences, missed birthdays and a mounting fear of losing a husband and father of two. They pleaded with him to leave.
Before Mr. Schroeder could quit his post as superintendent of the Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew, his longtime deputy and natural successor left. His crew would be leaderless. His family was losing patience.
“You don’t want to see it fall apart,” said Mr. Schroeder about the crew he helped build over close to a decade. “But something has to give soon,” he recalled thinking.
He withdrew his resignation.
Alongside the increasing intensity of wildfires, a parallel crisis is unfolding: Federal firefighters are leaving the front lines in droves. This year’s fire season is nearing its end, and the career decisions this fall and winter of experts like Mr. Schroeder will help determine how prepared the country is to face the next season. Blazes are increasingly igniting further into the fall and winter, including a small fire that started this month in Colorado that prompted evacuations.
The fierceness of wildfires is transforming the profession’s perils almost beyond recognition, firefighters say. Six of the seven largest fires in California history have occurred over the past year and a half, while other Western states have grappled with unprecedented blazes.
Conditions in the forests and longer stretches away have made the life nearly untenable for seasoned firefighters on the Folsom Lake crew, according to interviews with current and former firefighters and supervisors on the team. Firefighters increasingly find themselves in harrowing situations, they said, that wear on them mentally long after they leave the fireline.
Time off between deployments has sometimes shrunk from up to a week at a time to two or three days, some firefighters say. As those above them leave, rookie firefighters often pick up the slack, filling positions for which they might have scant training and sometimes doing work they aren’t paid for, they said.
In the past, it typically took a firefighter decades to reach the top post, and it wasn’t uncommon for superintendents to hold the job into their 50s, said Mr. Schroeder, 41 years old. “That was the trajectory I was on,” he said. “Then reality set in.”
Now superintendents like him are departing the front lines younger in California, he said.
An array of federal and state agencies and municipalities respond to wildfires, depending on where and how they burn. The U.S. Forest Service, under the Agriculture Department, employs the largest number of federal wildland firefighters, roughly 10,000. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, has roughly 3,400 firefighters, including Mr. Schroeder and the Folsom Lake crew.
The overwork and resulting retention issues afflicting federal wildland firefighting is troubling, said Jeff Rupert, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, which helps coordinate multiple agencies’ fire operations including the BLM’s. “They are carrying a tremendous weight on their shoulders, and they’re getting hammered,” he said. “That’s not how it should be, and that’s not sustainable.”
Increasing the number of crews and resources to spread out the burden is critical to address the family impacts laid out by Mr. Schroeder, he said. The department is also working to convert seasonal gigs into full-time positions, boost pay and improve mental-health support for wildland firefighters, he said.
“We’ve got to expand capacity so that we don’t have to ask Jason and Jason’s crew and wildland firefighters to deploy six, seven, eight, nine times a year in order to respond,” he said.
The U.S. needs to nearly double the roughly 15,000 federal firefighting personnel it has, estimates Riva Duncan, a former Forest Service chief fire staff officer who retired last year. Noncompetitive pay and overwork are driving away experienced firefighters, said Ms. Duncan, now executive secretary of the firefighter-advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
There is up to a 20% vacancy rate among the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting ranks, the group estimates. It doesn’t estimate BLM vacancies, but the Forest Service is a bellwether for the whole federal system, Ms. Duncan said, because the same issues plague the five agencies that contribute firefighters. “It might mean that the fire gets bigger than we want,” she said. “We might have to let a part of the fire go.”
The Forest Service in a written statement said it is difficult to confirm the 20% estimate because staffing decisions occur across disparate parts of the agency. It said that it has the same number of firefighters as in previous years but that it has seen key personnel leave and has struggled to recruit new employees.
The BLM in a written statement said: “It is well recognized in the wildland fire community that a new model is needed to provide employees with career stability and upward mobility to promote work life balance and long-term careers in fire or resource management.”
Some relief would come in the infrastructure legislation that President Biden signed this month, which includes $600 million to raise the pay of federally employed firefighters and commitments to convert seasonal gigs into full-time positions and to address mental-health issues. Rep. Joe Neguse (D., Colo.) introduced a bill in October that aims to improve federal wildland firefighters’ work-life conditions.
Before joining the Folsom Lake crew in 2013, Mr. Schroeder worked as a smokejumper in Alaska for six years, parachuting into wilderness to extinguish fires. He took over the Folsom Lake crew in 2015 when wildland firefighting still offered a manageable life at home with his wife, Fiorella Fuentes, and 1-year-old son.
After two-week tours, he said, he could take a week or more at home from June through mid-October. Ms. Fuentes said she worried about him less back then, adding: “He had time to come back to life.”
Mr. Schroeder’s crew of mostly men became his second family, he said. He created a culture in which anyone of any rank could offer input, his crew members said—a departure from the rigidity of the military, where nearly all had served. They celebrated crew birthdays with cake and filmed a happy-holidays video running up their training hill dressed in Christmas garb.
The roughly 20-person crew hiked miles into the backcountry, mostly in Northern California, often sleeping on dirt without tents for weeks atop ridges, grilling canned Spam on coals from a wildfire. The veterans were naturals, said Mr. Schroeder, who never served in the military. They could radio in coordinates for helicopter water drops with ease and kept a cool head in grueling situations.
‘We’re paid in sunrises and sunsets—that’s what we say,’ a Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew member says; the team in 2019.
PHOTO: BRANDON GUILLEN
Jorge Pacheco, 35, disarmed roadside bombs in Afghanistan with the Marines before joining the crew in 2017. He found summers battling wildfires alongside close friends to be as meaningful and intense as his work abroad, he said. When he chain-sawed a burning tree, he said, he could get the same spooky feeling as fiddling with wires on an improvised explosive device.
One member designed a crew logo: a bayonet crossed with their main tool, a Pulaski—part ax, part hoe. Some sported the emblem on tattoos.
“You get addicted to this,” Mr. Schroeder said. “It gets in your blood.”
By 2018, the job was changing quickly as wildfires intensified. That year, blazes destroyed 1,614 structures in the Carr Fire—on which Mr. Schroeder’s crew worked—1,643 in the Woolsey Fire, and 18,804 in the Camp Fire where blazes killed 85 people.
The ferocity and sheer number of overlapping blazes increasingly transformed the crew’s work. On a blaze near wine country, a supervisor requested the crew hike down a hill to finish digging a key piece of “line,” firefighting lingo for a clearing of anything that can burn; Mr. Schroeder worried the fire was ready to explode there, and he might lead his crew into a death trap. He declined the assignment.
On the Mendocino Complex, at the time the largest blaze in California history, instead of working far-off roads in the back country, which had been the norm, the crew raced around a valley saving dozens of homes, at times alongside a ranching family that hadn’t evacuated.
Mr. Schroeder said he found himself making more critical snap decisions like this in the field. On days off, he couldn’t keep his mind off his crew. He slept next to his work phone in case they needed support. He found it hard to jump back into normal life and reconnect with his family on short breaks. “It’s difficult,” he said, “to make it up to them in two days.”
Ms. Fuentes increased her calls for him to leave firefighting. She had given birth to a daughter in 2017, and the couple had firefighter friends whose marriages were ending in divorce, Ms. Fuentes said. Their daughter was now 1, and their 4-year-old son was reaching an age where his father’s absence saddened him.
“I told him that time moves fast,” she said, “and you can’t have these moments back.”
‘You’re never going to find the perfect person to take the position,’ Ms. Fuentes told Mr. Schroeder. ‘It’s time to choose family.’
PHOTO: TALIA HERMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
‘Paid in sunrises’
There was also the matter of pay. In 2018, roughly half the Folsom Lake crew made under $16.50 an hour in base pay, Mr. Schroeder estimated. The same estimate held in the 2021 season, he said. Other entry-level federal firefighters based elsewhere made less, he said.
“We’re paid in sunrises and sunsets—that’s what we say,” said Kenneth Worthington, 28, who served in the Navy before joining the Folsom Lake crew.
BLM spokeswoman Serena Baker said that she wasn’t able to confirm the $16.50-an-hour pay estimate and that hazard and overtime pay allows the agency’s wildland-fire crew members to earn more than their base pay. Pay has been based on the federal General Schedule scale, the predominant scale for U.S. civil-service workers, with wages varying with experience and classifications. In 2018, many entry-level firefighters across federal agencies had their base wages set at roughly $13 to $14 an hour, according to that year’s pay scale.
Most federal wildland firefighters aren’t technically classified as firefighters. Many have titles such as “forest technician” or “range technician”—a misclassification that has helped hold back pay, says the Grassroots Wildland group. President Biden, after he said he learned what many of these front-line workers were paid, temporarily bumped up some salaries to at least $15 an hour this year. The new infrastructure legislation calls on the Office of Personnel Management, which publishes the federal pay scale, to classify wildland firefighters as such.
One day in 2018, crew member James Gallaher found Mr. Schroeder sitting alone, staring across the landscape while the crew talked and sharpened chain saws before bed. A helicopter had dropped them off in the Sequoia National Park to fight a remote blaze.
‘You get addicted to this,’ says Mr. Schroeder.
PHOTO: BRANDON GUILLEN
Mr. Gallaher, 35, who did two tours with the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he asked what was up. “It’s going to be really hard to leave all of this behind,” he recalled Mr. Schroeder replying. “But I have a family to think about now.”
Leaving would contribute to the talent drain among federal crews across the country, Mr. Schroeder recalls thinking that summer. When experienced midlevel firefighters left the crew, those that had served under them had to work harder to pick up the slack and learn on the fly the skills necessary to fill the void. If that transfer of knowledge happened too fast, mistakes in the field could occur, Mr. Schroeder said.
When Mr. Schroeder took over the crew in 2015, fires were smaller, easier to manage and less overlapping, so his crew had stints at home of up to a week, he said. By 2019, he said, time off between June and October had largely shrunk to the minimum two days between two-week deployments.
After the 2019 season, he made a decision he calls one of the hardest of his life—to resign. “I’m not leaving because I don’t believe in the mission or that I don’t love the work anymore,” he recalled telling his crew. “I’m leaving because it’s not sustainable for my family.”
The crew would be in good hands, he assured them, likely with his deputy and longtime friend, Peter Dutchick, who had ample experience for the role.
Mr. Dutchick, though, had his own growing doubts. He returned home from more extensive periods away, he said, to find life moving on without him. He missed his daughter’s first words and steps.
One night, he slipped into his daughter’s room to kiss her goodbye and it hit him: It was time to leave firefighting. His 17 years fighting wildfires were “intense and wonderful,” said Mr. Dutchick, 41. “But it’s not something that ends at the end of the shift.” That winter, he accepted a Forest Service position off the front lines.
Breaking the news
Mr. Schroeder broke the news to his family that he would take back his resignation and return to lead the crew. Ms. Fuentes was disappointed but knew it would take her husband time to let go, she said: “Others have quit right away, and even though they’re not doing the job anymore, they’re still doing it in their heads.”
Mr. Schroeder told his family he needed just a year to train another replacement. Their son didn’t want to talk to him, Ms. Fuentes said.
It was a treacherous 2020 fire season Mr. Schroeder stepped into. Blazes broke out simultaneously across Northern California. Turnover and injuries among the Folsom Lake crew limited the group’s effectiveness. One crewman inhaled so much smoke his esophagus swelled, and he nearly choked while eating.
Ms. Fuentes shouldered the children—then age 3 and 6—alone that summer. Her parents, who normally traveled from Peru to help during fire season, stayed home because of the coronavirus pandemic. She began reflecting on the impact wildfires had on her life. The couple had planned her pregnancy around when fires might end. She made house visits to help another crew member’s partner care for her baby when the partner was left home alone during the previous year’s fire season.
Ms. Fuentes rarely asked about daily details on the phone when her husband was at a fire. But at the crew’s end-of-season party, videos of them working against walls of fire and their stories of close calls shook her.
After the 2019 season, the Folsom Lake crew had struggled to meet its retention target. In 2018 and 2019, it had met its goal of bringing back roughly 75% of its members from the prior year. Entering the 2020 season, it brought back 70%. (That dropped to 60% entering the 2021 season.) The crew lost members to state and municipal fire agencies, Mr. Schroeder said, which could pay more than double what federal agencies could and offered perks such as hotel rooms at some fires.
Mr. Schroeder said he became ethically conflicted over recruiting new firefighters, struggling to persuade young veterans into a career that he knew could run them down emotionally and financially.
Mr. Schroeder helped his new deputy, Brent Webb, earn qualifications needed to run the team. When rains ended the 2020 season, Mr. Schroeder told the crew he was leaving and Mr. Webb would likely take over.
He applied for a BLM office job near his children’s schools and looked forward to pickup and drop-off duty. Ms. Fuentes, a civil engineer, was excited to take on ambitious work projects she had for years turned down: “I told people, ‘He’s quitting, he’s quitting!’ ”
But Mr. Schroeder knew Mr. Webb was struggling. On the season’s last fire, the crew’s spirits were low after they spent roughly five days sleeping in heavy smoke and struggling to hold flames to one side of a ridge with little backup. “It’s hard to keep everyone’s morale up,” said Mr. Webb, 37, “when I can barely keep mine up.”
A few months before the 2021 fire season’s start, Mr. Webb told Mr. Schroeder he had accepted a job leading a crew in Hawaii, where he hoped the pace would be more manageable.
The West’s wildfire crisis, Mr. Schroeder realized, had broken the decades-old playbook of gradually training up new leaders. As talent left, agencies had to move ever-younger firefighters into leadership positions, he said.
“I just don’t want to get to the point where my teenage son hates me,” he said, but once again, he couldn’t bring himself to step away from his crew.
Ms. Fuentes said she suggested that, after this time, he not tell the children he was planning to quit. Their son, she said, accused him of caring more about the fire crew than him. Just hold on, Mr. Schroeder said he replied: The end was in sight—he would stay on just long enough for the agency to hire a replacement, as soon as midsummer.
Ms. Fuentes could see her husband’s turmoil, catching tears in his eyes when their son didn’t want to talk to him. “You’re never going to find the perfect person to take the position,” she told him. “It’s time to choose family.”
Mr. Schroeder had no deputy and was down a squad leader. His number of qualified crew bosses, a crucial midlevel leadership position, was less than half last year’s.
On a tour in August near the Oregon state line, the crew was short on backup and traversed ridges thousands of feet high. “Damn near broke everyone’s morale by the end of it,” said crew member Britton Holsinger, 30.
The BLM had offered Mr. Schroeder an office job, and he had taken it—on paper. He continued to lead the crew while the agency’s search for his replacement dragged on.
As distant fires burned, Mr. Schroeder at times found himself juggling a family phone call in one hand and his crackling fire-operations radio in the other. On one tour, a crew members’s eye swelled shut from poison-oak exposure, and Mr. Schroeder drove him to receive medical attention; that let him steal away to celebrate his daughter’s fourth birthday.
On one tour, against the backdrop of Mount Shasta, he and his crew stopped the progress of a section of fire—“caught it,” in firefighting parlance. “For a brief moment,” he said, “I told myself I could do this for the rest of my life.”
His son, who had turned 7, increasingly told him he didn’t want to talk. Ms. Fuentes told her husband that when her parents returned to Peru there was no way she could take care of the family alone.
“I had to draw a line in the sand,” Mr. Schroeder said.
In late August, the BLM gave Mr. Schroeder what would be his final assignment with the Folsom Lake crew: Help train roughly 200 active-duty Army soldiers who would assist in filling the gap in firefighters.
Mr. Schroeder was with his crew one last time in the field in September as they taught the soldiers to search for hot spots and gave chain-saw lessons in a partially scorched pine forest in the Sierra Nevada. When two crewmen inadvertently sawed into a beehive and got stingers lodged in their faces, Mr. Schroeder helped remove them with a credit card.
“Losing Schroeder will be the biggest hit this crew has taken,” said Mr. Gallaher. “He’s the compass pointed north.”
‘I don’t want to say I’m ready, but I feel competent and I can figure stuff out,’ says Indalecio Perez, who took over from Mr. Schroeder.
PHOTO: JOE BRADSHAW
Indalecio Perez became Folsom Lake Veterans’ acting leader. At age 33, he was young for a superintendent. He had been on the crew for four years and effectively jumped over the captain position to head up the team while the BLM searched for a permanent leader and deputy.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Mr. Perez, raised on a ranch in Mexico before immigrating to California as a teenager. “I don’t want to say I’m ready, but I feel competent and I can figure stuff out.”
In mid-October, Mr. Schroeder went to Hawaii for a week with his family. There, his son turned 8 and Mr. Schroeder took him snorkeling. They had birthday cake.
Mr. Schroeder worries his crew is bogged down in what is becoming an unsustainable fight. But the trip, he said, reinforced that “Leaving was hands-down the right decision.”
‘I had to draw a line in the sand,’ says Mr. Schroeder.
PHOTO: TALIA HERMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Write to Marc Vartabedian at firstname.lastname@example.org
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