Confronting 'insurmountable' challenges to keep America's wildfires at bay

Longer, more intense wildfire seasons are taking a toll on both America’s forests and the people who risk their lives to protect them — but for many federal wildland firefighters, including the few women in their ranks, the camaraderie that comes with the job outweighs its physical and mental challenges.

Martha Schoppe, an Idaho-based smokejumper for the Bureau of Land Management, said she values the trust she has built with her co-workers, as she and her team of eight parachute into a massive blaze.

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At 42, she has opted to not have kids and is one of only about a dozen women among around 400 American smokejumpers — an elite status she has found to be free of gender bias, as everyone goes “through the wringer” to survive training.

“If you do, you've proven yourself,” Schoppe told The Hill, noting that the jump itself, while exhilarating, is “literally three minutes."

“Once we land on the ground, we're just another firefighter,” she said.

But what “just another firefighter” means in practice varies based on career stage, specific assignment and crew members. And although gender disparities have improved, there is still “an implicit bias that women aren’t necessarily cut out for this type of work,” according to Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and former chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.

“Society kind of reinforces this notion that a firefighter is a tall, strapping white male,” Martin said.

In addition to boosting pay, a provision in the Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, introduced by Rep. Joe NeguseJoseph (Joe) NeguseCO lawmakers ask DOJ to investigate police's knowledge about alleged shooter Biden addresses Coloradans after wildfires: 'Incredible courage and resolve' Overnight Energy & Environment — Virginia gears up for fight on Trump-era official MORE (D-Colo.) on Tuesday, would allow firefighters up to 180 days leave — today limited to three days — to care for family members.

That could help retain women, who often leave positions “at the peak of their skill and expertise” and lose retirement benefits due to a “break in service,” according to Martin, whose organization was involved in drafting Neguse’s bill.

Martin acknowledged that there are “great women out there who are still in fire, that have had children and have made it work,” but stressed that “the challenges are almost insurmountable.” Agencies must recognize the special needs associated with pregnancy and childbirth, she said.

Female firefighters also face a potentially higher rate of miscarriage and preterm labor, which may be linked to pollutant exposure, the rigors of shift work and heavy lifting, according to Sara Jahnke, director of the National Development and Research Institutes.

Jahnke is working with University of Arizona colleagues to explore how firefighting affects women’s health, with a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although she has thus far only assessed structural firefighters — those battling building fires — she said her team is about to study impacts on wildland firefighters.

These women, she acknowledged, tend to have an incredibly healthy baseline and “a different set of challenges.”

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Federal agencies are confronting a shortage in wildland firefighters, due to the low pay and emotional challenges that come with the job, according to Martin. That is one area the bipartisan infrastructure bill is also aiming to address.

At Grassroots — which also helped draft provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure act — Martin said she reminds elected officials how firefighters confront “catastrophic injury or death on almost a daily basis.”

“We've seen a huge exodus of what would be the future managers and leaders of our organization,” said Jon McDuffey, a fire and fuels technician for the U.S. Forest Service, who said many firefighters struggle with work-life balance.

Included in the bipartisan bill is $600 million to increase wildland firefighters' salaries by up to $20,000 each year, while converting 1,000 seasonal workers to permanent positions. The bill would also launch new mental health programs, focusing on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Federal agencies have long paid firefighters low base salaries, with the idea that they could accrue overtime — much like how waiters depend on tips, according to Schoppe. CalFire employees, she said, make twice as much as their federal colleagues.

Even permanent employees face a layoff period at the end of the season, which McDuffey said makes it difficult to afford “astronomical” housing costs. McDuffey, 45, lives in a camper in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

When it comes to life planning, Schoppe said she hasn’t come across many smokejumper moms, but she has met some “jumper couples” who have struggled to split their time.

Acknowledging that “things could still change,” Schoppe said that having kids just “hasn’t been the priority of my existence.” She enjoys lengthy winter visits with her family and values having a supportive crew — who have even provided her with unexpected tips like the advantages of “wearing men’s boxer briefs” to minimize chafing on the job.

“That's one of those things I always share with the young females, if it comes up — men's underwear, it's the way to go,” Schoppe added.

Despite the importance of such camaraderie, Schoppe stressed that life shouldn’t “revolve around that crew because it does break up every fall” — warning that when it does, many firefighters encounter mental health issues.

“You're in this group of people with similar interests and then all of a sudden it's snowing and you're on your own,” she said.

McDuffey echoed these sentiments, adding that a therapist recently helped him realize that he is “definitely in burnout phase.”

“But I'm too stubborn to stop working,” he said.