The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday warned of staffing shortages among federal firefighters, potentially threatening the agency’s response to massive wildfires across the country, which have only been growing in size and intensity in recent years.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in prepared testimony before the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry Wednesday that “fire seasons have now become fire years,” making it “imperative to ensure a robust year-round workforce available to respond at any time.”
However, the agency head noted that “as the complexity of the firefighting environment grows exponentially, our recruitment and retention of firefighters have been further complicated by our inability to offer a set of uniform competitive wages and benefits for permanent and seasonal employees.”
“Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States,” Moore told the subcommittee.
He went on to say that the agency has “seen highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service; we have experienced some inability to recruit new employees; and we are in a constant mode of training new employees.”
President BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE announced earlier this year that he would raise the minimum wage for federal firefighters to $15 per hour. But Moore argued Wednesday that more needs to be done to improve working conditions and benefits to retain a more stable workforce ready to fight continuous wildfires.
“The USDA Forest Service is committed to keeping our communities and firefighters safe as fire seasons grow longer and more severe,” the fire service chief said. “The dedication, bravery, and professional integrity of our firefighters and support personnel is second to none.”
Moore noted Wednesday that so far this year, there have been a total of 45,971 fires that have burned more than 5.9 million acres across the country, with more than 4,500 homes, commercial properties and other buildings estimated to be destroyed.
The forest service head told lawmakers that going forward, his agency would be focusing more on treating forests before fires begin to try to minimize the damaging effects of blazes, including by thinning underbrush and debris and clearing dead trees and branches.
“We must actively treat forests,” he said, adding that this is “what it takes to turn this system around.”
The testimony comes after the country experienced a severe fire season last year, with California’s blazes making it the state's largest fire season in recorded history.