Wildfire in 2020 left damage all throughout the Santiam Canyon east of Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
Oregon faces a shortage of wildland firefighters that could be “a recipe for trouble,” according to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.
Wyden wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently with concerns that their agencies weren’t prepared to handle another catastrophic fire season such as that of 2020 and 2021.
He said one out of five wildland firefighter jobs in Oregon and Washing stand empty, depleting the ranks of those tasked with containing and quelling wildfires. The wildland firefighting program for the region is currently staffed at 1,840 firefighters, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The agency considers 2,281 to be fully staffed.
“Oregon is still struggling to build after two back-to-back horrific fire seasons,” Wyden wrote. He said the federal agencies have access to more money for wildfire prevention and fighting than ever before with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November, which included $600 million to boost firefighter wages nationwide and $8 billion for states to mitigate wildfire risk.
“Your departments received this much needed support. Now, more than six months after being given this new flexibility, we are past time for action,” Wyden said.
He asked for an update on how funds had been distributed so far, how funding amounts to each region of the country were determined and how many acres the U.S. Forest Service would treat in Oregon, such as getting rid of dead and dying debris in federal forests. Representatives from Wyden’s office said he has not had a response from either Haaland or Vilsack to his June 7 letter.
At a June 9 meeting with the U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, Wyden further pressed for information on where federal money was going, and when Oregon would be receiving greater federal help with wildfire prevention, management and firefighter shortages.
About half of Oregon belongs to the federal government, which has so far allocated $39 million to the state to spend over five years for wildfire prevention under the infrastructure bill.
For wildfire prevention, Moore said the Forest Service will treat vegetation on 20 million acres of national forests over the next 10 years, and collaborate with other local and state agencies and tribes to treat 30 million more.
“Our plan is to look at 50 million acres within this time frame in order to make a difference on how that fire is behaving across, particularly, the West,” he told Wyden.
On workforce shortages, Wyden laid out the extent of the need.
“Western states are actually trying to borrow firefighters from each other, chief,” Wyden said to Moore. Wyden said that firefighters he spoke with in Oregon universally wanted better pay.
“We already see these ‘help wanted’ signs offering much better pay in various other positions,” Wyden said. “Given the billions of dollars Congress provided in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, particularly for forestry, the question from Oregonians is obvious – how is the department going to use that money to fix this shortage of permanent wildland fire positions?”
Since the federal infrastructure bill was passed, firefighters have not seen promised wage increases, Wyden said.
Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy Forest Service chief of state and private forestry, said in a June 7 note updating federal firefighters that increased pay is coming in the next few weeks. The firefighters will receive retroactive payments for pay raises dating to last October.
Last summer, President Biden raised entry-level wages for federal firefighters from $13 to $15 an hour.
“They do deserve better pay, they deserve better benefits, they deserve better care in terms of mental and physical health conditions out there,” Moore said.
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.