Heading into the hottest and driest months of the wildfire season, the Department of the Interior is short hundreds of firefighters, a result of recruitment problems and the longest federal government shutdown in history.
Based on interviews and internal agency memos obtained through a public records request, The Times found that the agency had at least 241 fewer seasonal firefighters available than expected.
Nearly 60% of California’s 33 million acres of forest is owned and managed by two federal agencies, the Interior Department and the Forest Service. They are often aided by state firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — the source of a recent dispute in which the Forest Service threatened to withhold millions of dollars in back pay owed to the state for battling wildfires on federal lands.
This year’s shortfall appears to stem, in part, from the Interior Department’s struggle to hire seasonal firefighters across its bureaus in the aftermath of the shutdown. These employees, who are brought on for several months each summer to bolster the agency’s forces during peak fire season, are typically hired in January and trained over the spring. By the start of the wildfire season, the hiring window has closed.
The agency, however, did not meet its expectations. In an email last week to The Times, an Interior Department spokeswoman wrote that just 1,359 seasonal firefighters had been hired for the year, short of the 1,600-person goal agency officials outlined in a January memo.
A spokeswoman said that the higher figure was only an approximation and that the agency is prepared for fire season.
Officials at the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal wildfire response, said the Interior Department had budgeted for a firefighting workforce of about 5,000 this year. An Interior spokesman disputed this figure, saying the agency currently has, and had planned to have, 4,500 firefighting personnel. The agency had no plans to hire more.
It’s unclear whether the Forest Service, which boasts an annual firefighting workforce of more than 10,000, is also understaffed. Christine Schuldheisz, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said the number of temporary firefighters hired for the summer was not available.
Wildfire experts said a staffing shortfall in one federal agency affects the other because it shrinks the pool of people who can be dispatched to these disasters. This is a particular concern as out-of-control wildfires in the West become more common and more destructive.
“Fewer pairs of boots on the ground will have an impact if it gets busy, and they are short of resources,” said Bobbie Scopa, who until 2018 was the U.S. Forest Service’s assistant fire director for operations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. “They could all be competing for resources a month from now.”
“The size and magnitude of our wildfires has significantly outpaced our hiring,” Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite National Park, said in an interview, adding that her comments reflect her personal views, not the Interior Department’s. “I think people are worried about firefighter safety and protecting the public because of our significant challenges with staffing.”
Last winter, the federal government was shut down for a record 35 days, interfering with the agency’s usual preparations. Agency documents show that months after the government reopened on Jan. 26, officials were still trying to catch up.
In a March 25 memo describing the state of fire season preparations, officials in the department’s Office of Wildland Fire wrote they had fallen 15 to 30 days behind in recruiting and hiring seasonal and full-time employees. Firefighter training courses had to be rescheduled.
“Some scheduled project work may not be accomplished in fiscal year 2019 because treatment windows are closed,” they wrote.
Yet in the same memo, agency officials expressed confidence they would be able to make up the lost time.
The delays will “not affect firefighter and operational safety,” they wrote. “The full cadre of firefighters will be in place to respond to wildfires during the busiest part of the year beginning in May.”
Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Assn., an employee association representing federal firefighters, said the government has downplayed the effect of the shutdown.
“Everything has been pushed back. Hiring is still a problem in some areas, not all,” he said. “It’s going to have an impact for the remainder of the year.”
On the ground, those charged with fighting the fires said staffing levels are strained.
Martin oversees 28 firefighters — the bare minimum, she said, to protect Yosemite from wildfire. It’s the most understaffed the park has been since she began working there in 2006, she said.
The park’s position of deputy chief of wildland fire has been open for more than a year and is being filled with a temporary replacement. There are openings for a fire ecologist, a prescribed fire specialist, a helicopter aviation manager and a handful of supervisory positions.
Martin said some of her employees are taking on additional responsibilities that would normally be shared among two or three people. Even if she could hire more seasonal firefighters this late in the summer, she said she wouldn’t have enough experienced people in leadership positions to train them.
The shutdown was an impediment, Martin said, but the agency’s challenges in recruiting and retaining firefighters are a complex and long-term problem.
Low unemployment has made it increasingly difficult to find job candidates. On top of that, the combination of low wages — entry-level federal firefighters earn $12.95 an hour — and California’s housing costs have made fighting fires for the federal government less attractive than doing it for states and municipalities, which often pay more.
This year’s slow start to the fire season in the West has bought federal officials more time to prepare. But there is plenty of dry, hot weather left. Peak season in California doesn’t begin until late July or early August.