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With wildfire season quickly approaching, state officials seek to attract and retain firefighters

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Wyoming has experienced many wild and forest fires over the years, as has pretty much all of the West. But many of these fires are only growing in intensity and size each season. They’re also becoming more common year-round now, leading fire prevention officials to prepare for fire years.

The Crater Ridge and Mullen fires are just two of the most recent examples in Wyoming, which burned approximately 185,000 acres combined. And while attracting and retaining firefighters has long been a topic of discussions from local, and state governments, in addition to the federal government, officials have indicated that this is a problem that’s only getting worse.

“It does seem like it’s become more and more of an issue just because some places had been able to pay more and people have gone and left previous jobs to go take jobs where they’re better paying,” said Jarod DeLay, Assistant State Forester and Fire Management Officer with the Wyoming State Forestry Division. “It’s kind of always been there but it seems like it’s coming to the forefront more and more.”

DeLay said that the state is seeking to boost pay levels for starting firefighters, which he said ranges between $15 and $18 per hour. This would coincide with pay increases for other state employees, who are also increasingly leaving the public sector for better paying employment.

Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior raised wages for federal wildland firefighters from $13.45 to $15.00 per hour. It’s been praised as a way to help the hemorrhaging that’s been prevalent as firefighters seek employment elsewhere, often for jobs that offer a better work-life balance and increased pay.

“But I know from the State of Wyoming, we’ve looked at trying to increase pay, and I know there’s being on the federal side that they’ve also looked at trying to be able to give more incentive, a higher pay starting out to a certain level,” DeLay said.

Despite some of the major fires that ravaged some parts of the western U.S., Wyoming's fire season last year didn’t necessarily mirror what other states dealt with, as fires burned millions of acres in other parts of the West.

“From last year, it was always a concern of having enough people to staff the fires that they had, even though in Wyoming it was kind of an average year,” he said. “But nationally, as fires got larger [and for a] longer duration, it became an issue of whether [they’d] be able to staff fires at historically [what] we’ve always wanted to have on fires. Resources are just being spread thin.”

DeLay said that while the state directly employs firefighters, they also heavily rely on county firefighting departments as well.

Vacant positions don’t just include firefighting roles but also include administrative ones, too that ideally need to be filled.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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