‘The new normal:’ One year after the East Troublesome Fire made its historic run, federal agencies are adjusting to meet growing wildfire demand
Wildland firefighting is changing on a national scale.
For the past 20 years or so, fire officials and everyday community members have seen an unmistakable pattern of growing wildfire danger across the western United States.
According to data provided by the National Interagency Coordination Center, more than 3.2 million acres of forest burned in wildfires across the country on average between 1983 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2020, that average jumped to more than 7 million acres — over 10,977 square miles — and the only three recorded years with more than 10 million acres burned have all occurred since 2015.
There are a number of factors contributing to the trend, including past land management policies, climate change and expanded human development into the wildland urban interface, to name a few. But one thing is clear: America is burning.
“Overall, we are seeing an increase in large wildfire activity,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center based out of Boise, Idaho. “On average, we’re seeing fire years extend by about 60 days on either end of the spring or the fall. It’s been gradual over the last 20 years, but it’s definitely occurring.”
As the size and severity of wildfires continues to grow, so too does the demand on federal firefighting resources. And officials say they’re changing the way they approach firefighting to try and stay ahead of the game.
Preparing for the unexpected
A strong attack on the ground is key in wildfire suppression and containment, but it’s getting more dangerous to place firefighters in the path of what are becoming increasingly unpredictable blazes. The best example is here on the Western Slope.
In about a 24-hour period from Oct. 21-22, 2020, the East Troublesome Fire exploded, growing more than 87,000 acres — fueled by high winds, drought conditions and beetle-killed trees that served as the perfect kindling for the fire’s rapid growth.
That kind of fire behavior, especially overnight, is extraordinary by any measure. But officials say it’s now what they’re forced to plan for.
“I think we’re at the point now where that’s normal,” said Adam Bianchi, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “… We just have seen fire behavior change and do things differently that historically we have not, and we’re just learning differently with that. That goes also back into the safety aspect. Where we would historically feel comfortable in certain situations knowing how fire typically burns, now we may not be as aggressive. …
“With lower (relative humidity) and cooler temperatures, we felt like nighttime was always a good opportunity to make good headway on any sort of suppression or containment. That’s not necessarily the truth anymore, so we’ve had to adjust, I think, on our tactics and just accept that it’s not unprecedented. This is it: This is the new normal, and we need to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Perhaps the biggest change in the wildland culture over the past decade-plus is a movement away from more traditional and aggressive tactics on the ground, pulling firefighters away from situations where they could be killed or injured — futilely facing down a flaming front or moving through areas with dead-standing trees — and putting them in a position where they can actually succeed.
Firefighters often rely on firebreaks to find safe places to engage a fire, whether that’s a road, a natural barrier or an area that’s been treated by a hazardous fuels mitigation project. But those projects are expensive.
Bianchi said that in the past, companies would pay the U.S. Forest Service to come in and harvest timber. In places like Colorado, he said that industry has shrunk to the point where fuels-mitigation projects leave the service in the red, and it’s reliant on partnerships with local governments to subsidize the work. That means federal officials have to be careful with where they plan projects to get the most bang for their buck.
“That’s where we struggle, and so our philosophies had to change,” Bianchi said. “Instead of doing these really large, landscape-scale projects with a lot of acres, it’s about being strategic. We have a finite amount of money, and we really have to rely on partners … putting in dollars to help us manage it.”
Aviation resources are another major expense, but they’re also key in helping to reduce extreme fire behavior and giving firefighters on the ground a chance to do their work. Given the extensive demand for those aircraft in recent years, federal officials have had to prioritize what goes where.
Gardetto said the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group — a collaboration of fire managers from various agencies — meet twice daily to determine where the most highly requested resources should go.
“We have to be really strategic in years like this and like last year when we have a significant number of large wildfires burning across the landscape,” Gardetto said, adding that it’s similar to the military moving soldiers and military resources around during war.
“(It’s) involved, and in some cases, (resources) can be moved daily or even a couple times in a day with something like aerial resources that can move quickly,” she explained.
Gardetto said that federal wildland fire agencies are looking into expanding the nation’s fleet of aircraft to meet growing demand along with additional employees to facilitate the associated contracting work.
“It’s not just adding the actual metal that’s flying in the air; it’s all the support personnel that come along with it,” she said.
Firebreaks and slurry drops do little good without men and women on the ground doing the dirty work.
Gardetto said there is an ongoing effort at the national level to transform the wildland firefighting workforce. She noted that the Bureau of Land Management is working to create a ratio of 80% full-time to 20% seasonal employees — she said about one-third of employees are currently permanent — and that other federal agencies are working on similar initiatives.
With wildfire season rapidly expanding into the fall and winter months in some areas of the country and more mitigation projects needed, a more permanent wildland workforce would be ideal. But lately, federal agencies have had difficulties recruiting and retaining those firefighters. Officials say the problem is poor wages, limited benefits and brutal working conditions.
“We’re seeing people leave and take other jobs, and we’re seeing competition with private industry,” Gardetto said. “Some places like Costco are offering higher starting wages than entry-level fire positions. … We want to increase wages to give firefighters a living wage and then ensure that they have meaningful careers: providing permanent positions with benefits and increasing our workforce so that we can allow firefighters to take time off in the summer to ensure a work-life balance. Right now, being a wildland firefighter often means being gone from your family and away from home for months at a time.”
There has been a push in Congress to address funding issues. The infrastructure funding bill would allocate about $3.4 billion toward wildfire risk reduction efforts, including hazardous fuels reduction programs, community wildfire mitigation grants and wage increases for firefighters.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, co-chair of the bipartisan wildfire caucus, last month passed a pair of measures through the U.S. House of Representatives centered on improving housing opportunities and mental health programs for federal firefighters as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, Neguse and his co-sponsors unveiled the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named for a smokejumper who died in the line of duty in New Mexico earlier this year. If signed into law, the bill would raise federal firefighter pay to at least $20 an hour, ensure firefighters earn retirement benefits and create a new federal wildland firefighter employment classification so they’re recognized for the dangerous work they’re doing, among other changes.
According to Neguse, federal firefighters are currently classified as forestry technicians, make an average entry wage of about $13.45 per hour and are infrequently provided with adequate health care benefits.
Finding solutions together
Wildfires are changing here in Colorado and around the country, and finding and implementing the right solutions to fight back isn’t going to be easy.
Officials emphasized that in addition to expanding federal and state firefighting capabilities, local communities need to understand their role in preventing catastrophic wildfires.
“Historically, many communities have had the attitude of, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to us,’” Gardetto said. “So they don’t take proactive measures to reduce the wildfire risk around their communities.
“That’s something that, while the federal government can assist with grants and conduct treatments around communities on federal properties, it’s really the responsibility of homeowners to make sure their property is resistant to fire. Thankfully, that’s something we’re seeing. People are making firewise efforts. We’re seeing more firewise communities. However, we still have a ways to go.”