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Feds hope new wildland firefighter job classifications will help with retention

  A member of the Black Mesa Hotshots helps with a mid-June burnout on the Hull Fire in Northern Arizona.
A member of the Black Mesa Hotshots helps with a mid-June burnout on the Hull Fire in Northern Arizona.

Dressed in ash-stained fire resistant yellow shirts and green pants – weighed down by heavy packs, hand tools and chainsaws – the thousands of federal employees who head out to the fireline every summer certainly look like firefighters. But their formal titles often are range or forestry technician.

That’s changing – in a reform that many say is overdue.

What’s in a name? A lot according to Jeff Arnberger, a deputy fire operations chief with the Bureau of Land Management.

“It never really accurately described our duties and in a lot of ways really tied our hands in terms of recruitment and retention and being able to describe career clear career paths and things like that,” he said of the current classifications. “And frankly, some of it just worked against us.”

Under the current system, many mid-career firefighters run into obstacles – like higher education requirements – when they want to advance into fire management positions, according to Arnberger.

The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law mandated that federal agencies develop a specific wildland firefighter classification. Arnberger has been involved in that effort, and the Bureau of Land Management just started posting positions under the new system. The Forest Service is also working on the issue, but recently received an extension for implementation.

Along with the real professional benefits he hopes for, Arnberger said there are more intangible upsides.

“People can hold their heads high now, and actually really say, ‘I am a wildland firefighter. I'm a professional wildland firefighter. I'm not a forestry technician, not a range technician. I'm truly classified as what I actually do for a living and have committed my life to,’” Arnberger said. “So that's pretty cool.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse