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New review of wildfire’s Hotshot program recommends numerous changes to ‘unsustainable system’

 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.

Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs) are considered to be among the most elite personnel in wildland fire. But a recent review - the first of its kind - identified a number of challenges crews face – and recommended dozens of changes to address them.

“The hotshot program is at a crossroads,” the U.S. Forest Service review summary opens.

Crewmembers face long hours, brutal conditions, low pay, weeks-long stretches away from friends and family, high housing costs and numerous other issues detailed in the review.

“In a time where more wildland firefighting capacity is needed, applicant lists for hotshot crews are less robust and the workforce is diminishing,” the summary continued. “If these challenges are not addressed in a timely manner, the current unsustainable system may leave crews unable to provide the leadership, expertise, and capabilities required in today’s wildland fire environment.”

But the review also made 50 short- to long-term recommendations with the goal of strengthening “recruitment, retention, and crew effectiveness by improving the work environment.”

They include some that are already being implemented, like the previously all-but-unthinkable ability for crews to take time off midseason, according to Jason Kuiken, supervisor of the Stanislaus National Forest in California and team lead of the review.

“That did not happen five years ago,” Kuiken said. “We've had hotshot superintendents choose to take a week off in summer, be able to have one of their captains lead the crew out and they go fishing with their kid.”

Other recommendations being implemented include more time off after fire responses, which typically last at least two weeks, and updated job classifications that identify federal wildland firefighters as firefighters, not forestry or range technicians.

The review was broken up intokey themes, including pay, hiring practices, vehicle policies, facilities and others, all of which included recommendations.

Low pay, according to focus groups and a sizable survey done as a part of the review, “is

considered the most important issue to resolve.”

Legislative efforts to make temporary raises permanent currently face significant uncertainty in Washington, meaning thousands of federal wildland firefighters are confronting the prospect of steep pay cuts just as the season is winding down.

“I can tell you through conversations and otherwise that people believe in the mission of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and Park Service,” Kuiken said, referring to three of the principal federal agencies with IHC programs. “But you can only believe so much. That doesn't always put food on the table, right? Or a roof over your head. And so being able to have that pay certainty says, ‘I can not only believe in that mission, I can make it work for my family.’ And that's huge.”

Inadequate crew facilities and precarious living situations were among a number of issues identified by the hundreds of firefighters surveyed for the review, with some 20 percent of respondents reporting that their primary housing while off assignment was their car or camping.

Expanding hazard pay for prescribed fires; improving the hiring process, including outreach to more diverse candidates; modifying retirement formulas to include overtime and hazard pay; lowering day rates in government housing while personnel are on assignment; and expanding access to mental health services were among the many specific recommendations.

While the review was specifically of the IHC program, Kuiken said that many of the recommendations are broadly applicable to the wildfire in general. Asked what the federal wildfire service might look like in five to 10 years if those recommendations are implemented, he said, “when that unplanned fire starts and is coming, let's have people out there and being able to focus on the task at hand.”

“That to me is what success looks like,” he added.

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.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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