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Study: Pay, experience positively impact wildland firefighter retention; competing wages not so much

 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.

Retention in the federal wildland firefighter workforce has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. New research has insight into some of the factors that influence whether firefighters return.

Hotshots are among the most skilled and experienced firefighters and are often sent to the most challenging parts of wildfires. That study, recently published online by the journal Forest Policy and Economics, looked at the role of three factors in Hotshots’ decisions to come back the following season: pay, level of experience and wages in alternative jobs.

The researchers found that “a higher workload, a proxy for higher earnings, and cumulative experience over the course of an employee’s career both have a significant positive impact on retention.”

However, wages in other work in the same market “had no significant positive impact on retention.”

“This research … really strongly backs up the work that has been done previously that says pay matters to firefighters,” said Erin Belval, the paper’s lead author and a research forester with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.

She emphasized the findings only apply to members of Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs), who number up to about 2,500 every fire season. Belval noted the findings regarding wages in other fields only apply to retention, not the recruitment of new firefighters.

However, Belval said that the research methodology could be used to look at other wildfire positions and other factors impacting retention.

“This research was a first step,” she said. “This is the first research that's been done like this.”

Belval and her coauthors also identified a trend of declining Hotshot retention starting in 2017.

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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