Last Nov. 8 at 6:30am, wildland firefighters were called to battle a blaze that had sparked near the tiny rural community of Pulga in Butte County California. By 8:00am, propelled by gale-force winds roaring off the Sierra Nevada that sent flying embers leap-frogging westward across seven miles of varied terrain, the fire had reached the town of Paradise. By 10:45am, satellite images showed that half of Paradise was already fully ablaze, its buildings fueling the conflagration. In just four hours, the Camp Fire had become the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, resulting in 86 civilian deaths and nearly 14,000 homes and five public schools incinerated.
As metropolitan communities expand into once sparsely populated areas of the West, more homes and buildings—structures, in firefighting terminology—are in the path of wildfires, where human development and wildlands intermingle intricately. Federal, state, and tribal partner firefighting agencies, long the mainstays of wildland protection and fire containment, have had to scramble to keep up with the need for more firefighters and equipment, in part to defend these structures. A century of forest-fire suppression, multi-year regional drought, and climate-change effects are creating a perfect storm for destructive mega-wildfires in the modern landscape.
With increasing frequency, firefighting agencies are enlisting help from other jurisdictions to defend structures when fires erupt. Oregon, for one, sent fifteen strike teams comprising approximately 300 firefighters and 75 rigs of varying sizes to the Camp Fire response. Some 4,700 firefighters from seventeen states and an array of agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, California prisons, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many others partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to battle last year’s California fires. The process of bringing in firefighters from other states and jurisdictions isn’t instantaneous. It involves a complex system of communications on both sides of the request; the Oregon contingent wasn’t officially mobilized until about 30 hours after the fire broke out.
Structural firefighters and wildfire fighters were once two quite separate groups of responders, but this is changing throughout the West. Nowadays structural firefighters are training to join both sides of the battle. Jim Spell, in a 2014 article for Fire and Rescue1 stated, “Getting their ‘red card’ and training with Pulaski tools and shovels are the beginning steps of getting into a segment of firefighting that keeps growing larger and more intense with every fire season.”
Structural firefighter Pat McAbery of Gresham, Oregon Fire Department near Portland, was deployed as a member of the multi-agency response to the Camp Fire. Speaking to Oregon Master Naturalist volunteers recently, he described the differences between the types of firefighters this way: “[We] Structural firefighters have a short attention span. You call us, we go. We set up to fight a fire at one building, and we stay until the fire is out.”
Wildfire fighters must take a more deliberative approach, given the complexities of wildland fire spread. “They collect information like topography, wind direction and speed, weather predictions, and likely direction of fire movement,” McAbery explained. “They take these into account before they deploy personnel to the firelines. Tactics and equipment are very different. They set up miles ahead of the fire to build their lines.” (If you have 20 minutes to watch this training video from the National Fire Protection Association, it will be time well spent to learn about the complexities of firefighting on the wildland/urban interface.)
During a deployment, “ground-pounders” as McAbery admiringly referred to wildfire fighters, are camping, eating, sleeping, working 16-hour shifts or longer for weeks at a time on the firelines, out of view of the TV cameras. Structural teams, on the other hand, work 12 to 24-hour shifts, depending the assignment, as in Paradise, where crews searching for dead bodies were given stints of 12-hours. Structural firefighters sleep in centrally located tents or motels and are treated to applause and meals by locals who see them around town at the end of their shift. “Structural firefighters get all the glory because people see us in town having dinner. Wildfire fighters are still out doing all the hard work digging lines, cutting brush and trees on steep terrain,” McAbery said. Asked about the relationships between the two groups, he acknowledged there is some tension, adding, “Frankly, we’re stepping in to their world and I’m sure that some of them don’t like it. But I’d say that the relationship between the two worlds is pretty good. I think they are getting used to seeing us more and we’re getting better at the wildland game.” He feels that an attitude of mutual respect has grown in recent years, maybe due to the increased need for teamwork.
In a November 2018 interview for Fire and Rescue1, Scottsdale Fire Department firefighter Blake Miller praised the unseen labors of the Camp Fire wildfire responders. “When we got here they were three to four days on the fire lines without sleep,” he said. Providing respite for the local first responders is a high priority for those arriving on scene from farther distances. All are in agreement that resident and firefighter safety is the prime concern. “The land will come back,” Miller said, “It’s just [about] safety at all times.”
Westerners must find ways to thank our unsung wildfire heroes. One way we could do this would be to bring their salaries to parity with those of structural firefighters. A Bureau of Labor Statistics map shows that metropolitan firefighters in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington earn an average salary of $55,000-75,000 annually. In comparison, a wildfire fighter in the US Forest Service may make from $26,000 to $49,700, depending on position and experience, with a 25% hazard pay increase during deployment. Firefighters hired by private agencies may barely break minimum wage, starting at about $16 per hour, the equivalent of $33,000 per year if it were year-round, but these are strictly seasonal jobs.
Every westerner is affected by wildfire, and owes a great debt to our firefighters from both sides of the urban/wildland interface. Shouldn’t we support them and express our deep gratitude by calling public attention to the salary gap and urging federal and state lawmakers to find ways to close it?