Smoke was thick in the air on the North Cascades Highway as firefighters in yellow shirts stained with black soot sat on the side of the road last week, downing water on a rare break from fighting one of the largest fires in the state.
A visibly exhausted crew supervisor, Austin Betts, 30, watched from his pickup truck. This is Betts’ first fire season supervising a 20-person Forest Service hand crew based in the Naches Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Betts’ crew had a slow start to the fire season, staying close to home in case fires started and spread quickly, with the hot and dry conditions that caused droughts in the state. Spokane last month was listed in the most extreme level of drought for the first time in the history of the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The Cedar Creek fire started on July 11, quickly spreading to encompass more than 52,000 acres of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Then, a few days later, the Cub Creek fires started just miles away, burning just north of the historic town of Winthrop. The fire has since burned more than 61,000 acres of timber and short grass.
With the size of the Cedar Creek fire, burning mostly in timber, hot spots likely will need attention until the first significant snowfall, Betts said, a task that will fall to crews like his.
“It is exhausting coming back to the same fire that you just left from,” Betts said. “It can really just wear on you mentally, like you’ve seen the same piece of ground over and over.”
After months of 14-plus-hour days, sleeping in a tent, with limited time off, wildland fire crews are laid off and return home to their families. It’s difficult to decompress and return to normal life, especially with limited support, Betts said.
When Betts was a squad leader, he wanted to keep people safe but also wanted to get in there and work, he said. Now that he’s crew supervisor, he wants everyone to work hard, “but it’s always weighing on my mind, like how are these people doing?” Betts said. “Are they going to be actively engaged and not get smashed by a tree today?”
Betts said his job is to explain to higher-ups the danger his crew is facing, not only from their surroundings, but mentally .
Wildland firefighters typically work 14 days with two days off before they are eligible to return to the rotation to be sent out again, said Chuck Turley, Wildland Fire Management division manager at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Crews can be extended for up to a 21-day deployment, Turley added.
Currently, the DNR is taking a more stringent look at extension requests because it’s so early in the fire season and the department wants to prevent burnout, Turley said.
In the past, a significant fire would have an incident management team on a five-to-seven day assignment.
“That’s really not the situation we see any more,” Turley said. “Almost all of these fires, when we have to have an incident management team assigned to them, it’s a 14-day assignment.”
The fire season is starting earlier, ending later and is more intense, with some fires lasting weeks or months.
“We have more continuous fires throughout that entire time period, and it leads to more assignments and more time on fire than what we had in the past,” Turley said.
For Betts’ crew, that means compounding stress with little rest or relief.
In 2020, his crew didn’t lay off their temporary forestry technicians until November, after they had fought fires in New Mexico, Oregon and all over Washington. The crew worked 950 hours of overtime, the equivalent of more than 20 weeks of full-time work, he said.
The crew also had extended assignments, Betts said.
“Even though it’s a 21-day assignment, with six days of travel, it turns into 27 days away from home,” Betts said. “You get two days off, and then you’re eligible to go right back out somewhere.”
Betts hired 22 people for his crew this year, but only 17 people showed up, which he blames on the low wage of $13.30 his crew receives as federal employees. The minimum wage in Washington state is $13.69 per hour.
“It’s hard, like when McDonald’s has signs all over town that says starting $16 an hour, and you’re getting paid less than somebody just flipping burgers. I mean the world needs burger-flippers too,” Betts said. “It’s definitely not the pay that keeps them coming back, because you have to work two years worth of hours in one year just to make a living.”
Betts worked seasonally for six years before accepting a full-time position. The job attracts people who like to recreate, he said. There is a strong camaraderie among the crews who have “the sense of doing something that actually matters,” Betts said.
“It’s really awesome being on a crew that loves to be out here too,” Betts said. “It’s really frustrating when the government doesn’t want to take care of them and just sidesteps issues constantly.”
At the Forest Service, not only do they not control the pay, but as with most government agencies, change is slow.
“Our system just isn’t going to flex as quickly,” said Alex Robertson, director of fire and aviation for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
The Forest Services hires both temporary and permanent seasonal employees, Robertson said. Temporary seasonal employees can work up to six months and don’t get benefits, while permanent employees get benefits, along with rehire rights, but only work part of the year.
President Joe Biden promised more federal resources to solve the problem, noting he was shocked at how little wildland firefighters are paid and plans to raise the wage to at least $15 per hour.
In Washington, the Legislature passed multiple bills earlier this year aimed to help with fire prevention and wildfire fighting. One bill provides the funds to hire 100 more full-time firefighters, which, Turley said, would open up a career path for seasonal workers to move into full-time positions with benefits.
Currently, the DNR staffs 120 engines seasonally, meaning they hire between 500 and 600 people with about 60 people on hand crews, Turley said. While they were able to fill all their openings this year, it was more difficult .
Staffing shortages have been an issue nationwide, especially in service industry jobs. Both Turley and Robertson said finding contractors to provide services for fire camps has been an issue, with caterers and other service-providers lacking in staff.
People who want to fight wildfires also are taking jobs that pay more, like in California, where they can make almost $20,000 more than the federal wage, according to a letter signed by multiple senators in June. Private firefighting companies also often pay more, but it’s a trade-off, said Engine Boss Brad Beck Jr. with Late Summer LLC.
Beck, a 34-year-old firefighter from Otis Orchards, said “it’s a Catch- 22.” While his hourly wage is higher than that of a federal firefighter, he doesn’t work as many fires as someone at a government agency because private crews bid for contracts to fight fires, he said.
“From the last four years, it’s ramping up,” he said. “We shouldn’t be seeing timber fires like this, this early in the season.”
Beck’s three-person crew was also out fighting the Cedar Creek fire last week. No matter whom they work for, the physical and mental struggles abound for firefighters who spend months away from their families working 14-plus hours a day and often sleeping in a tent.
“It’s hard on crew being away from family,” Beck said. “As crew, we become family and kind of support each other. If someone needs something, we work through it and get each other through it.”
That support and camaraderie is present on large federal crews too, Betts said.
“The only people that take care of us are each other, really,” Betts said. “This becomes your family for six months out of the year.”
But when fire season ends, that support network of people who understand the struggles of the job has scattered, returning to their homes across the country.
The off-season can be isolating when trying to decompress without other firefighters, Betts said. ”That’s probably where the biggest mental fatigue comes in.”
Mental health support at the Forest Service is “in its infancy,” Robertson said. However, the agency recognizes it’s an issue. There are dozens of suicides among wildland firefighters each year.
“Suicide rates have become astronomical,” Nelda St. Clair, a manager for the Bureau of Land Management wildland-fire department’s Critical Incident Stress-Management Program told The Atlantic in 2017.
Turley said that in Washington, they often use Critical Incident Stress Management teams to help when there’s a critical incident that can affect someone’s emotional health. Such incidents include a fatality, accident or even a near miss.
The Department of Natural Resources has also trained 16 personnel internally to perform peer support, he said.
“I think it has been very successful on the occasions that we’ve had to use it,” Turley said. “The ideal is that we’d never have to use those folks.”
The department also uses nonprofits, including Code 4 Northwest, that provide confidential support to first responders.
Still, Turley admits that working wildland firefighters hard and then sending them home without significant resources doesn’t work well.
“There were lots of examples of how that was not working for people,” Turley said.
The Cedar Creek fire is still growing, with only 25% containment as of Friday afternoon. There were still nearly 1,000 people on the ground, but as the months wear on and the fire is contained, things will scale back. Betts said his crew will likely be dealing with Cedar Creek on and off until late fall.
“I think the thing that we can’t lose sight of is that we’re only halfway through a fire season, and so some of these mental health challenges and fatigue challenges and all of these things, there’s a long ways to go,” Robertson said. “We can just expect more as we go on, with really no relief in sight.”