US Senator Steve Daines last week called on the Biden administration to address the housing issues facing wilderness firefighters.
Daines — along with a bipartisan group of colleagues from California, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon — is asking for information on the availability and cost of federal housing for firefighters in hopes of strengthening the ranks of wildland crews. Housing can be a barrier to firefighter recruitment and retention, particularly in remote areas where private opportunities are limited, the group argued.
“The federal forest fire brigade has a difficult and dangerous job and it is the federal government’s responsibility to support them in this work. We look forward to discussing these issues in detail and working with you to address the barriers to firefighter recruitment and retention,” the senators said in the release.
The effort follows a report released by the Government Accountability Office in November 2022. Among other challenges to retaining and recruiting firefighters in federal territories, the report focused on housing issues. According to the report, “many wilderness fire departments are located in remote or expensive areas or both…”
The report found that remote locations pose other challenges, including limited access to services like schools or grocery stores, and internet connectivity.
According to the report, the main barrier to recruitment and retention was compensation.
“Low wages were the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal firefighters,” the report said. “Officials … also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the job. In addition, officials and advocacy groups said firefighters are sometimes employed by non-governmental fire departments or for less hazardous work in other areas, such as firefighting. B. gastronomy, can earn more.”
In a separate letter to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the senators requested a briefing on federal housing pricing guidelines related to federal firefighters in the wilderness.
In recent years, the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior have struggled with staff shortages during an increasingly destructive and widespread wildfire season. In July 2022, for example, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both Democrats, implored the Biden administration to increase the ranks of California-based firefighters. In a letter, they cited a nationwide shortage of 1,200 firefighters as the 2022 wildfire season began.
Feinstein and Padilla both aligned with Republican Daines in lobbying for wilderness housing for firefighters.
According to the US Forest Service website, recruitment for the 2023 wildfire season began in September 2022. The northern region, which includes Flathead National Forest, hopes to fill 150 to 200 permanent positions in northern Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Specialty positions include dispatch, engine crew, smoke jumper and more.
Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at [email protected]