Two firefighters watch the flames during the Sunrise Fire in Western Montana in August 2017.

Two firefighters watch the flames during the Sunrise Fire in Western Montana in August 2017. Bureau of Land Management

“It feels impossible to stay”: The U.S. needs wildland firefighters more than ever, but the federal government is losing them

Highly skilled firefighters are the last line of defense against wildfires, but that line is fraying because the government decided long ago that they’re not worth very much.

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

Black Butte is an inactive volcano that rises from the high desert in eastern Oregon. In May 2022, a turboprop plane approached its pine-blanketed slopes, carrying about 10 men wearing bulky Kevlar outfits. They were smokejumpers with the United States Forest Service, the agency that directs the majority of the nation’s efforts to manage wildfires. Within the vast and hierarchical fire service, smokejumpers occupy a singular niche, parachuting into remote areas to fight early-stage wildfires. There are only about 450 nationwide, and the physical requirements are rigorous.

One of the smokejumpers on board was Ben Elkind. Thirty-seven years old with a long, athletic build and restless energy, he had been fighting wildfires for 14 years and jumping for the last eight of them. Despite his elite status, Elkind earned about $43,000 in 2021 over the course of the seven-month fire season. His base paycheck, though, was less than half of that. Like most wildland firefighters, he relied on overtime and hazard pay, which can be accumulated on two- or three-week shifts away from home. Many firefighters exceed 1,000 hours of overtime in a season. Elkind chose to be with his wife and two young children more that year and worked a relatively modest 700 hours of overtime, the equivalent of 17 additional weeks.

Still, the beginning of the season usually rekindled the parts of the job that Elkind loved — especially the adrenalized clarity that arrived when his crew’s spotter tapped him on the back, indicating that it was time to jump. In recent years, the Forest Service has switched from round parachutes to rectangular ones, which allow for greater maneuverability. During training exercises that spring, Elkind was still getting accustomed to the new chute. After he slid out of the plane’s open door, a tailwind picked up. He did not descend quickly enough to the landing zone, sailing slightly past it. He saw ponderosa pines rushing toward him and tried to slow his chute. Its canopy collapsed, and he free fell. When he landed, his left leg crashed through his pelvis. Colleagues rushed to him, cutting his suit away. An ambulance sped him to a hospital, where doctors would eventually insert three plates and 12 screws into his hip. He was sent home on painkillers.

Doctors told him he would be on crutches for at least two months, possibly three. When I spoke with Elkind soon after the injury, he said, “I got a lot of pills going, but it’s all right.” Then his tone shifted. “I need to — I would like to — get back jumping,” he said. “That would mean I’ve recovered, but I also know that you don’t always recover from these things.”

He had more immediate worries, though. He could file for workers’ compensation benefits through the Department of Labor, but wildland firefighters have historically struggled to receive those, since federal caseworkers are often unfamiliar with the job’s geographically diffuse nature. (A firefighter based in Idaho might get injured in Arizona, adding a layer of complexity to an already burdensome and bureaucratic process.) A recent survey found that nearly half of Forest Service employees who had suffered an on-the-job injury chose not to report it, assuming that they would receive little or no help. Even if Elkind recovered quickly enough to do office work, he would not be eligible for hazard pay or likely earn overtime, meaning he’d be making around $20,000. His wife, Amber, a physician’s assistant, would be contributing most of the family’s income. “It’s not a great situation,” Elkind told me. “My base check doesn’t cover rent alone.”

Knowing that the government couldn’t offer a swift remedy, his colleagues started a GoFundMe campaign, which quickly raised $50,000. Elkind called it a lifesaver. It was, he said, what wildland fighters did when a colleague was seriously injured. It was, he told me, “standard operating procedure.”

For communities throughout the American West, wildland firefighters represent the last line of defense, but that line is fraying because the government decided long ago that they’re not worth very much. The highly trained men and women protecting communities from immolation earn the same base pay as a fast-food server while taking severe risks with their physical and mental health. Despite the mounting public concern over the increasing severity of wildfires, the federal government has not seen fit to meaningfully address these issues. The effects of this chronic neglect have now become strikingly clear as the fire service is finding it difficult to fill its ranks, prefiguring what advocates are calling a national security crisis.

Fighting wildfires has always been a dangerous occupation, but in the last decade it has become staggering in its demands. Accelerating climate change, coupled with a century of suppression of wildfire, has created thick stands of trees primed to burn across much of the American West. In certain parts of the country, fire seasons that once lasted a few months now span much of the year. In 1993, the federal government fought wildfires on 1,797,574 acres; by 2021, that figure had more than quadrupled. Each spring brings a game of geographic roulette. In 2017, Montana set a state record for wildfires. The next year, California followed suit, with nearly 2 million burned acres, a figure that stood briefly before it was topped twice in the next three years. Experts have been forced to coin a new term for fires exceeding 1 million acres: gigafire.

In many places, wildfire is an essential part of the ecosystem: It clears out dead underbrush and aging foliage, spreads new seeds and enables biodiversity. Extinguishing it, as federal and state governments have done for 100 years, just creates a larger and more dangerous fuel load. Great swaths of the country are now in what scientists call a fire deficit — they haven’t burned for a long time, and they need to, or fires will only get bigger and more destructive. The only way out of such a deficit is to let a wildfire go or to manage it by setting a prescribed burn to reduce the amount of fuel. But in drought-stressed and densely populous places, that is difficult. In 2022 in New Mexico, two prescribed burns got out of control, merged and scorched an area larger than Los Angeles. It can be all but impossible to suppress a megafire, but the government must try, unless it wishes to write off, say, Mora, New Mexico, or Malibu, California. There is no technology up to the task; most of the work is still done by unseen, underpaid people with chainsaws and hand tools.

But at exactly the time when the country needs wildland firefighters more than ever, the federal government is losing them. In the past three years, according to the Forest Service’s own assessments, it has suffered an attrition rate of 45% among its permanent employees. Many people inside and outside the fire service believe this represents one of the worst crises in its history. Last spring, as the 2023 fire season was getting started, I asked Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper who now heads the Bureau of Land Management’s fire program, if there had been an exodus of wildland firefighters. He initially hesitated. “‘Exodus’ is a pretty strong word,” he said. But then he reconsidered. “I’ll say yeah. Yeah.”

“The ship is sinking,” Abel Martinez, a Forest Service engine captain in California and the national fire chair for the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents wildland firefighters, told me. (For this story, almost every wildland firefighter who agreed to use their full name has an official role with the union; the one firefighter identified by their middle name does not.)

Although nobody could provide precise numbers, leaders like Beebe are especially concerned that the attrition has been particularly acute among those with extensive experience — those like Elkind. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to train a wildland firefighter capable of overseeing the numerous resources — engines, helicopters, smokejumpers — that are deployed on large fires. As Beebe put it, “You can’t just hire some person off the street into one of our higher-level management jobs.”

The reasons for the exodus are many, but fundamentally it reflects an inattentive bureaucracy and a culture that suppresses internal criticism. Only in 2022 did the fire service acknowledge an explicit link between cancer and wildland firefighters, even though officials have long expressed concern about the connection. And it was only last year that the fire service held its first conference on mental health, even though officials have been aware for decades of the high incidence of substance abuse and divorce among wildland firefighters.

But more than anything, wildland firefighters are leaving because they’re compensated so poorly, the result of a byzantine civil service structure that makes it extremely hard to sustain a career. The federal fire service is responsible for managing blazes on nearly 730 million acres of land — an area almost the size of India. Among the five agencies, one dominates in terms of influence and size: the Forest Service, which employs more than 11,000 wildland firefighters, most of whom work from roughly April to October. The hiring system dates to the early years of the agency, when it often recruited from bars and relied on volunteers to suppress wildfires by 10 a.m.

About one third of the workforce is temporary — firefighters who are automatically laid off at the end of each season. Even those who are permanent receive compensation starting at $15 per hour until they accumulate overtime and hazard pay. Because of the way the government classifies their work, it’s extremely difficult for wildland firefighters to increase their base salaries unless they frequently move around the country. Altogether, it’s a pay structure that incentivizes risk taking and a nomadic existence.

For more than a century, the Forest Service was able to call on a ready workforce, one made up largely of rural men. (It is estimated that 84% of wildland firefighters are male.) Because of the reliable flow of applicants, the agency did not need to advocate for increased pay. But the changing nature of fire seasons, combined with the skyrocketing cost of living in the mountain West, has made firefighting less alluring than it once was.

A Forest Service spokesperson wrote that since 2021 the agency has acknowledged the attrition among its workforce: “It is why agency and department leadership have been doing everything possible in coordination with the administration and Congress to provide a permanent, competitive increase in wildland firefighter pay, as well as staffing capacity and mental health programs.” The spokesperson pointed to a raise — from $13 to $15 an hour — created by the Biden administration in 2021. The spokesperson also wrote, "With the increasing duration and intensity of wildfires the agency understands the need to do much more.”

Last fall, the Forest Service processed its applicants for 2024. An official who has been involved in hiring for the agency for more than a decade characterized the returns as “abysmal” — “It’s the smallest list I’ve ever seen,” he told me. A severe dearth of applicants for temporary seasonal jobs — the entry point for the next generation of wildland firefighters — forced the agency to extend its hiring period. For permanent positions, the returns were not much better.

A Good Way to Earn a Living

Talk to enough wildland firefighters, and you’ll eventually hear about freedom. Not liberty, necessarily, but the thrill of a job that requires walking around woods with a chainsaw. Hannah Coolidge joined the Forest Service when she was 25, eventually becoming a hotshot, part of an elect crew that tromps far into forests to cut breaks around the largest wildfires to rob them of fuel. For a decade, Coolidge never attended a wedding or a funeral during fire season, but she loved the life — living outside, working with a tight-knit group, having winters for herself, being in phenomenal shape. (Researchers at the University of Montana have found that, during fire season, hotshots can expend about as much energy as cyclists in the Tour de France.) Taylor Hess also came for the time off but found that a Montana fire crew brought communal purpose, something that had been missing in the Midwestern town where she was raised. She liked huddling with colleagues at the end of the day, frying Spam over a wildfire’s dying embers and pouring an electrolyte mix on top. “It’s kind of gross,” she said, but she cherished those moments: “We get so close.”

A lot of the job is grueling and dirty: mopping up the end of a wildfire in a sea of ash; constructing line around piles of downed limbs in advance of lighting a prescribed burn; unrolling a sleeping pad in the woods or an ad-hoc camp, then awakening to the boot of a superintendent or water from the sprinklers on a high school football field. It’s slow until it’s not. Then it becomes vertiginous and hallucinatory. “It is a landscape of extremes,” Eric Franta, a wildland firefighter based in Oregon, told me. During Bobbie Scopa’s first fire, she was walking on a hill above a burning canyon when a chief bellowed for her to cover her head. An air tanker dropped chemical retardant, a great red squall that shook the ground. “I thought, ‘This is the coolest fucking job!’” she said.

In many communities, it’s also the best available employment option. Jake Kennedy, now an engine driver in California, was recruited by a former wrestling coach in a tiny Oregon town where the Forest Service was one of two reliable employers. Morgan Thomsen grew up in a remote part of Idaho where his parents were fire lookouts, so he was raised thinking that fighting fire was a good way to earn a living. Kristina — her middle name — enlisted in part to honor her family. Her grandfather had been a smokejumper, and her parents had both worked as wildland firefighters. “We have this loyalty in my family to the Forest Service,” she said.

Among his peers, Elkind is seen as fortunate. He didn’t join the Forest Service to escape rural poverty — he has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Lewis & Clark College — but rather to seek adventure. He was also a smokejumper, with the status that the job entails. (A fire service joke goes like this: A group of wildland firefighters walk into a bar. How do you know which is the smokejumper? They’ll tell you.) Still, Elkind, like so many of the firefighters I talked to, seemed almost trapped by the freedom he had once sought. “I like my job,” he said. “It’s just hard to see the effects when you’re starting out a career.”

Those effects weren’t just his busted pelvis. It was being away from his family for long stretches. (“It’s a Catch-22,” a firefighter told me. “For us to be able to provide for our families, it requires us to basically detach from our families.”) And it was how difficult the Forest Service made it for someone to rise and earn a decent living. To earn a promotion and reach higher pay grades, firefighters usually have to move among the agency’s nine regions or earn a master’s degree in forestry and leave the fire line.

Elkind didn’t want to do either of those things. He’d grown up in Oregon, and his family was rooted there. In early 2022, he and Amber moved to Redmond, a town of 35,000 in the central part of the state, where the Forest Service has one of its seven smokejumper bases. Compared with nearby Bend — a bacchanalia of Gore-Tex and microbreweries where the median home price hovers above $700,000 — Redmond is middle class. But, as Elkind told me, “This place is blowing up.”

Redmond, like many towns where wildland firefighters live, has experienced an influx of remote workers since the onset of COVID-19, which has driven up housing costs. The rent on the Elkinds’ modest house is $2,300. Even before his accident, he was nervous about making ends meet. In November 2021, the government offered some relief when Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which created a temporary pay raise for wildland firefighters of either $20,000 or 50% of their regular check.

When I visited Elkind at his home, toys were scattered across the floor, an elk mount lay on a couch and bills were piled on the dining room table. He wore shorts and a tank top, and his hair was long. Save for the flecks of gray in his beard, he looked boyish. Three months after his accident, he still walked with a limp and needed a cane but was able to drive his kids to school. He had considered filing for worker’s compensation but decided against it, because it was hard to reach his caseworker and because the Forest Service offered him an office job, which allowed him to benefit from the temporary pay raise.

Until the move, Elkind had been living a split existence, with his family in Portland and his job in Redmond, where he camped out on a colleague’s property during fire season. In the summer of 2020, lightning started a fire on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. It soon spread onto land managed by the Forest Service, and Elkind was dispatched. Upon arriving at a fire camp, he was alarmed by a lack of veteran firefighters. “It was like a ghost town,” he said. He found himself training people from municipal departments who had been hired on temporary contracts to fill vacancies. Over Labor Day weekend, wind carried embers for miles, causing the fire, which became known as the Lionshead, to jump and merge with others. The blazes burned more than 400,000 acres, killing at least five people.

At the same time, his mother’s home near Hagg Lake was under evacuation orders brought on by another fire. Amber was in Portland with the couple’s 2-year-old son, in a house without air conditioning. She was also pregnant. Elkind told her to duct-tape paper towels over a box fan to create a makeshift air filter as smoke from the fires suffused the city. “I think I had a little bit of a mental breakdown,” he told me. “Homes are burning down. People are dying.” Entire forests in western Oregon were disappearing. He couldn’t stop what was happening to the only place he’d ever called his own.

The decision to relocate to Redmond was so Elkind would not be away from his family throughout fire season. Still, he worried about the choice. Amber had been able to find work with a clinic in Redmond. But for him to reach a higher hourly wage would likely require the family to move again. “What’s she supposed to do? Quit her career every year and a half so I can get a dollar-fifty an hour raise?” he asked.

During our discussions, Elkind often edited his sentences so as to not sound as though he was blaming the Forest Service, even though as a union representative he had protection. His affection for his work became a refrain that he repeated to the point of awkwardness: “I like my job. It’s just difficult to justify it with a family.” “I do love my job, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s worth it for a young person.” “I would almost do it for free,” he wrote in an op-ed that appeared in The Oregonian in 2021 that was critical of the Forest Service’s refusal “to rise to the challenge of climate change and the growing demand that increased fires, short-staffing and low pay presents for our workforce.”

That rhetorical hesitancy was a reflection of Elkind’s torn feelings, but it was also an acknowledgment of something else: The Forest Service is known to function as a company town in rural America, deterring discussions that could result in negative attention. When I spoke with Jaelith Hall-Rivera, the Forest Service deputy chief for state, private and tribal forestry, she acknowledged that the agency has a reputation for discouraging employees from speaking out. “We have tried for a long time to change that culture,” she said. “Especially in fire, you have to be able to speak up when something doesn’t feel right to you.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees says it does not track instances of workplace intimidation or retaliation among wildland firefighters, so it’s impossible to ascertain how often this occurs. But fear of reprisal was a common thread in many of my conversations. At a gathering of wildland firefighters and agency supervisors that I attended last spring, a member of a Forest Service rappel crew approached me eager to discuss the changes she wanted to see in the agency — especially the need for more women in leadership positions. An older colleague quickly pulled her aside; when she returned, she asked if she could see the article before it was published. When I asked if a superior had told her not to speak to me, she said, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.”

Health Risks

Every year, returning federal wildland firefighters take a refresher course covering safety practices. Firefighters get to choose from a number of videos. One, titled “Smoke: Knowing The Risks,” is led by George Broyles, a former wildland firefighter and public information officer. From 2008 to 2014, he spearheaded the Forest Service’s research into the physiological impacts of wildfire smoke. “Exposure to carbon monoxide and some of these other chemicals is going to impact the way we think,” Broyles says in the video, which emphasizes wildfire smoke’s effect on performance and decision-making. But when it comes to the long-term health effects of working in smoke, the video is circumspect. “That’s an issue that’s still understudied,” Broyles says. The video, which was produced in 2018, never mentions the possibility of cancer, nor does a more recent preparedness guide for new recruits.

It is now widely accepted that all firefighters — structure as well as wildland — are far more susceptible to cancer than the rest of society. In 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that the job is carcinogenic to humans. But still the Forest Service and the other federal agencies that employ wildland firefighters have been slow to acknowledge the obvious. Part of the problem is a lack of epidemiological research into the distinct risks that wildland firefighters face. Dr. Jeff Burgess, the director of the Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, is working to fill that void by conducting long-term epidemiological studies on wildland firefighters. “We just don’t have the same degree of information on cancer risk in wildland firefighting that we do in structure firefighting,” he said.

Last February, I attended an event at the University of Miami called the International Firefighter Cancer Symposium, which brought together firefighters from as far away as Australia and researchers from institutions like the American Cancer Society and the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. It was a gathering for those who study cancer and those who develop it while fighting fires. Many of the researchers were looking into the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” Synthetic compounds, PFAS are ubiquitous in municipal fire- and water-resistant gear and have long been used in firefighting foam. (The Forest Service says it does not know whether its protective gear for wildland firefighters contains PFAS but that it has sent samples to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for testing.)

The conference’s emphasis on PFAS reflected a huge gap in research. Structure firefighters encounter smoke that is often more toxic than wildfire smoke, but they also use powerful respirators. Wildland firefighters eschew respirators since most are bulky and can be operated for only about 30 minutes at a time. Of the numerous studies presented, only one explicitly focused on wildland firefighters. In that project, which hasn’t yet been published by a peer-reviewed journal, researchers from the University of Miami examined exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, produced during prescribed burning. They found that wildland firefighters had elevated exposures to the compounds, which have been associated in the general population with lung and bladder cancer and cardiovascular dysfunction.

That smoke contains such material is not news to the Forest Service. In 1989, the agency convened its first gathering to discuss the physical effects of smoke and allotted some money for research. Attendees recommended that the agency conduct an epidemiological cohort study to examine long-term health risks. Funding for the study was never appropriated, though.

Eleven years later, researchers employed by the Forest Service published a paper that found that smoke from prescribed burns contained elevated levels of carbon monoxide and particulate matter, including benzene and formaldehyde, both of which are carcinogenic. It noted that, during high winds, the levels were up to three times above what workplace safety organizations recommend. Despite this, it concluded that “the adverse health effects of smoke exposure at prescribed fires seem to be manageable.”

At a summit in 1997, researchers again suggested that the Forest Service undertake a cohort study to look at the effect of wildfire smoke among the workforce, using markers like blood and urine samples. It, too, was never done.

Starting in 2008, Broyles, with the support of the Forest Service, traveled the country and to test fire crews’ smoke exposures. It wasn’t an epidemiological study, but it led to a 2019 peer-reviewed paper that modeled wildland firefighter cancer rates based on what is understood about smoke’s impact on the general population. It projected that wildland firefighters’ incidences of lung cancer would be elevated by between 8% and 43%.

The study was posted on the agency’s website, but, according to Broyles, its findings have led to little change. He said he was brushed off when he proposed an updated version of the smoke video to address the risk of cancer. (When asked about Broyles’ assertion, an agency spokesperson wrote, “The Forest Service is deeply committed to not only understanding occupational risks to employees but mitigating these risks.” They added, “Recruitment materials for wildland fire positions often describe the job as difficult and dangerous.”)

In 2022, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which is made up of leaders from the five federal agencies that oversee wildland firefighting, released a new preparedness guide for recruits that made no mention of cancer. “It confounds me,” Broyles told me. “Quite frankly, it breaks my heart.” As of last year, his 2018 smoke video was still being shown to federal firefighters. (When asked why the materials did not refer to cancer, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior said they were developed before the agencies were provided legal language recognizing a link between the disease and wildland firefighting.)

The firefighters union and an advocacy group called Grassroots Wildland Firefighters used the 2019 paper to lobby the Department of Labor, and in April 2022, the department announced that it would recognize numerous cancers, including lung, testicular and thyroid, as an occupational hazard. (Notably, cancers distinctive to women, such as ovarian, were excluded.) Eight months later, Congress passed a law that called cancer a presumptive sickness for federal firefighters and mandated that the five agencies that make up the fire service file a report on illnesses, including cancer, in the profession. “We’re just starting that,” said Hall-Rivera, the Forest Service deputy chief.

Some advocates have expressed hope that a deeper understanding of wildland firefighter cancer rates might evolve after the launch of the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer, a voluntary database managed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Congress allocated funding for the registry in 2018, but it went online only last spring. According to current and former employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH’s information technology department caused unnecessary delay. “From my perspective this is gross mismanagement,” said one person with direct knowledge of the project. Another official supported that assessment. (In a statement, a NIOSH spokesperson wrote that since 2021, the agency “has designed, built, tested, and deployed a robust enrollment system that incorporates industry best practices for information security and sensitive data management.”)

Immediately after the registry launched, Elkind decided to enter his name. When he arrived at the hospital after his training accident, he underwent a full-body CT scan, which revealed a mass in his thyroid. It proved to be cancerous. He had no family history of thyroid cancer, so he assumes his illness came from smoke inhalation, but he’ll never know. “Not everybody’s as lucky as me to break their pelvis at work and get scanned at the hospital,” he said with deadpan sarcasm. The next time we spoke, three months after the accident, he said, “I’m not upset at the Forest Service. I’m just like — I’ve never heard them say, ‘Hey, this smoke is cancerous.’”

"It’s Almost Hard to Pinpoint"

In the fall of 2020, after Oregon’s fire season ended, Elkind went for a run in Portland’s Peninsula Park. He had recently been laid off for the winter. For many wildland firefighters, this period of sudden transition is brutal: When you’ve been operating on intensity for six months, taking out the trash and folding laundry can feel empty. In the past, Elkind had managed the annual pivot by doing construction work and house projects or by traveling with friends. But he was still experiencing the acute pressure he’d felt since the peak of fire season when so much of Oregon burned. Amber had just given birth to the couple’s second son, and he wasn’t sure how to responsibly move forward in his career. “I was so stressed out,” he told me.

Elkind thought he’d try to contact a therapist — something he’d never done. During his run, he called the Employee Assistance Program, a service set up by the federal government that provides workers from any agency as many as six sessions per condition with a mental health professional. Elkind hoped to arrange an appointment in person but was informed that the session was only available right then on the phone. That wasn’t the worst of it: When he shared his employment information, he was told that he would not be eligible to receive help until he returned to work during the next fire season. “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll drink a few more beers and forget about this,’” Elkind said.

The Forest Service revised its EAP policy a year later and now offers consultations to firefighters for up to six months after their layoff. (“The agency has been proactive in addressing known challenges with past EAP services,” wrote a spokesperson.) However, because the EAP serves a vast federal bureaucracy, multiple wildland firefighters told me that they did not trust its counselors; the people on the other end of the phone, they said, knew little about what their job entailed.

The fire service does offer wildland firefighters access to a crisis intervention program after the death of a colleague, say, but it provides little aid for those facing the daily burdens of the job — and those can be extreme: Trees falling next to where you’re standing. Helicopters flying in to remove the injured. Mopping up for days, surrounded by smoke. Many wildland firefighters, who operate in a culture that prides itself on stoicism, respond to those pressures in ways that aren’t surprising. Some chase more adrenaline: kayaking, skiing, mountain biking. “There’s a lot of dealing with it through drinking and drugs — at best,” Hannah Coolidge, the Washington hotshot, said. In January, researchers with NIOSH and the CDC released a peer-reviewed study that confirmed what Coolidge and others told me. It found that among six federal wildland crews, 78% of the firefighters reported binge drinking.

“We’re so unhealthy in such a ubiquitous way that it’s almost hard to pinpoint,” a Forest Service firefighter in Oregon said. He had returned home from combatting a fire to find his house burned to the ground. Since then, he had endured symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. A firefighter in Wyoming who recently left the service told me that, like many of his colleagues, he couldn’t maintain a relationship: “I wouldn’t date me either. I’m not emotionally available. I’m gone.” A recent survey of the spouses of wildland firefighters found that almost half had considered leaving their relationships because of the job.

“Wildland firefighting is similar to other high-risk occupations and also similar to the Western American culture around how to manage difficulty,” psychologist Patricia O’Brien, a former hotshot who now oversees the Bureau of Land Management’s mental health program, told me. “There’s been a tradition of not talking about it, of keeping your personal life boxed up and separate and prioritizing work. And a sense that, as long as you’re able to show up and work, you keep your personal problems at home. We know that people may be able to do that for a period of time, but it’s not sustainable, and it’s harmful to people.”

In 2018, O’Brien, who at the time was a doctoral student, conducted a survey of 2,600 wildland firefighters, finding that one-fifth had experienced suicidal thoughts, while nearly 14% of respondents screened positive for probable PTSD — a rate about four times that found in the general population. Six years later, that data remains the most reliable on the mental health of wildland firefighters.

The Forest Service has responded to the mental health struggles of its workforce much the way it has responded to cancer: For years, officials have raised concerns about the issue, and for years, the agency has either ignored or minimized them. In a statement, the agency acknowledged it “has not conducted or funded a study into the mental-health effects of wildland firefighting.” Tom Harbour, a former national director of fire and aviation management at the Forest Service, told me that the agency began discussing the pressures on its workforce in the 1990s. “We started asking ourselves about the cost of the system we had built,” he said, referring to the agency’s emphasis on overtime and hazard pay. “Divorces, heavy drinking — those were just things that were kind of a byproduct of the system.” He added, “Why in the world should it take 30 years to make some of these changes?”

“That’s a fair question,” the Forest Service’s Hall-Rivera said. “We did have to build our awareness. It is hard to get people to talk about it, and we had to shift our focus and start asking for resources, start investing resources.”

In 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allotted $20 million to the agencies overseeing the fire service to establish year-round mental health programs. The Bureau of Land Management had already been taking steps in that direction; five years ago, it launched a pilot program offering pre- and postseason mental health trainings for firefighters to help them transition in and out of the season.

But the Forest Service has lagged behind. Last year, for the first time, the agency announced a wildland firefighter mental health support program; with $1.5 million allotted over two years, it’s still in the planning stage. (The Forest Service’s budget for the fiscal year was $10 billion.) Individual districts have begun contracting at least one mental health provider, Dani Shedden, a former wildland firefighter who in 2022 quit to start a counseling business. Shedden told me that much of her work with the Forest Service is focused on post-season sessions, in which she shows firefighters how to use the EAP and find what she called “culturally competent clinicians” in rural areas. Shedden has conducted 10 such sessions.

Last April, many of the fire service’s leaders — including Hall-Rivera and Beebe — gathered in Boise, Idaho, for what was billed as a first-of-its-kind seminar on mental health. Long the nerve center for the federal fire service, Boise has become a boomtown, pricing out wildland firefighters, with a median home price of $513,000. After the event, attendees gathered at a downtown food court, where Kelly Martin, a co-founder of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, approached Jeff Arnberger, at the time a Bureau of Land Management official who also served on the executive board of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. They began discussing their hopes for the service — subsidized housing, fair pay, presumptive coverage for PTSD, a more tolerant fire service. “If you ran our model at Nikon or Google or McDonald’s, those places would be out of business in five minutes,” Arnberger said. “We pay our people like shit. We don’t offer them any help when they have a problem.”

An Incredible Force

By January 2023, doctors had removed the cancer in Elkind’s thyroid, and he had been cleared to return to smokejumping. Amber asked him not to tell her about his first practice jump, so he didn’t. He spent almost the entire summer away from Redmond. In early July, he jumped a fire in Washington and felt his old confidence returning. He then had a long stint learning to be a medical unit leader. When we spoke in September, he was working on a handcrew in western Washington as its assistant — in effect, the second in command. “It feels like I’m almost giving back, helping to train people, which is kind of nice,” he said.

With Elkind away so much, Amber left her job as a physician’s assistant. “I didn’t feel like I could do the summer with me taking care of the children and doing primary care,” she said. Compared with previous years, 2023 was a light fire season. Fewer than 3 million acres had burned — the lowest figure in more than 20 years. That was particularly fortunate for residents of California, where, according to the union, 12% of Forest Service engines went unstaffed and had to be effectively shut down and six hotshot crews did not have enough firefighters to operate. In September — often the height of California’s fire season — the agency’s statewide wildland firefighting force had a vacancy rate of 35%. In one forest, the Modoc, 68% of positions were empty.

The temporary pay raise from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was set to expire in the fall. Kyrsten Sinema, the independent senator from Arizona, introduced a bill in August that would largely protect the increase, which had Republican and Democratic cosponsors. Then, over Labor Day weekend, the Forest Service sent an email to thousands of firefighters, informing them that they would be receiving a 50% pay increase — which turned out to be erroneous. The Forest Service explained that the notification was the result of a clerical mistake. “Please know that this error was not made deliberately,” the Forest Service’s human resources department wrote in a mass email two weeks later.

Elkind was on a fire when this occurred and said his attention was elsewhere. But for other wildland firefighters I spoke with, the email was indicative not just of the agency’s incompetence but of an obliviousness that bordered on cruelty. Congress has since voted to preserve the raise until Sept. 30, 2024, but its future remains uncertain. “I know that some of you are living paycheck to paycheck and do not have the means to save for a rainy day,” Hall-Rivera wrote on the Forest Service’s website. “Rest assured that we remain committed to securing the permanent solution that our wildland firefighters deserve.”

In the fall, when the Forest Service began to assess the state of its workforce for the 2024 fire season, the results were shocking, according to an official. Undesirable applicants were appearing frequently for crucial positions. “This list really stinks,” he said. In Rapid City, South Dakota — typically a popular work location — there was only one applicant for an engine captain position by mid-November. In California, union officials were anticipating a mass departure of engine captains and hotshot superintendents. “We used to have the depth,” Abel Martinez, the California engine captain, said. “We’d just promote everybody up. Now you go to the cupboard, and there’s no food. There’s nobody there.”

When asked about the continuing attrition, an agency spokesperson wrote, “It is accurate to say that the Forest Service has lost firefighters to better paying jobs,” adding that the dynamic “is more pronounced in specific regions and states.”

In January, Elkind resigned from his position as a smokejumper to become an assistant captain on a handcrew. “It feels impossible to stay,” he told me shortly before he made the decision. “It feels irresponsible to stay — with a family.” Then he started, once again, to talk about what he prized about his job: chainsaws, doing something that almost no one else can do, sliding out of the door of a moving plane into the open sky. He would miss that, but he wanted to continue fighting wildfire. It is an incredible force — writhing, leaping, kicking off embers that dart toward other living things. It can be regenerative, but it can also devour.

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