Firefighting is a tough job. It's even tougher when you're living out of your car.
The month Rachel Granberg spent squatting in an abandoned government building was not intentional. It was 2015, her rookie year in the beautiful Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon. Initially, the Forest Service had provided her with housing. In November, though, the Forest Service shut that housing down for the winter, leaving Granberg without a place to live for the last month of her season. (Note: Though Granberg still works for the Forest Service, her words do not represent the agency.)
“I ended up squatting in a gym slash storage building at a district work center, and I think I was there for a couple of weeks before they realized I was sleeping on a folding table in the back room tucked behind the gym,” she says.
Granberg now lives in East Wenatchee, Washington, and works as a senior forestry technician with the Forest Service. She tries to make light of sleeping on a table in November 2015, but her conditions were pretty gnarly. She opted for the table to get away from mice, and used a Gatorade bottle full of boiled water to keep her feet warm.
“I did not have running water or bathroom facilities,” she says. “I was like, cooking ramen in my little camp stove with a window open, and going to the bathroom outside slash strategically going to coffee shops. And then I had a gym membership, so that's where I was able to, like, you know, take a shower.”
Granberg’s story is one she’s discussed a lot with other firefighters, and they’ll throw in some of their own. Firefighters live out of their cars and trailers and camp out on the side of the road, even when they’re not actively fighting a fire. Michelle Hart, wife of wildland firefighter Tim Hart, remembers her husband’s methods for scraping by.
“He ended up living out of his truck for the three years that he was in Grangeville,” Michelle says. “And I remember calling him at night, and those hot summer nights sometimes will get up over 100 degrees, and he'd be sleeping — trying to sleep — in the back of his truck. And he had it better than some of his other smokejumper bros that were sleeping in the passenger seat in their car.”
Tim’s 2007 GMC Sierra sits in Michelle’s garage. He welded two solar panels to the truck’s maroon camper shell. The panels charged a battery he’d use to power a small camp stove or a heater. He stored food in a cooler that fit into the backseat. He also made what he called the ‘patented sleep system,’ which is basically slats of two-by-fours.
“And I knew that our relationship was going really well when I came home from work one day and found that he had built an extension onto his sleeping platform that was removable,” Michelle says. “I knew that was a pretty big deal that he had built this, like, extension just for me onto it.”
Tim died last summer while fighting the Eiks Fire in New Mexico. He and Michelle had just bought a house in Cody, Wyoming the year prior. While Michelle still has his signature truck parked in the garage, she doesn’t drive it anywhere. She doesn’t know if she can handle selling it.
Tim loved his job, but the compounding poor conditions and bad pay strained the couple’s relationship — and Tim’s sleep schedule. This, too, was not uncommon. In 2021, advocacy organization Grassroots Wildland Firefighters surveyed the spouses of wildland firefighters. Nearly half of respondents reported that their partners were experiencing inadequate or poor quality sleep during fire season.
“He loved the people he worked with, but he wanted to be gone as much as possible, so he wouldn't have to do that, so I think that says, you know, enough about how it was for him,” Michelle says.
Michelle saw the toll unstable living conditions were taking on Tim, and on their relationship. The two had talked about him trying out a new occupation after the 2021 fire season.
The Forest Service has been having trouble finding and retaining firefighters. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters reported that 20% of the Forest Service’s permanent firefighter positions are currently sitting vacant. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore stated that the organization had only reached 90% of its overall hiring goal this year, with some regions only reaching 50%. The organization believes that addressing the needs of existing firefighters will combat this exodus.
These needs are at the center of the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. Michelle Hart worked with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters on this bill, which would improve federal firefighter pay, benefits, retirement plans, and mental health resources. There’s also a section of the bill focused on housing stipends for firefighters. These stipends allow firefighters to secure housing during fire season without having to worry as much about costs cutting into their personal savings.
This legislation feels like a step in the right direction for Michelle and other supporters. The Forest Service has not made any official announcements about improving housing conditions for federal firefighters. Suzanne Flory, a press officer with the Forest Service, stated that any decisions concerning the establishment of new housing or the maintenance of existing housing is managed by staff at the local forest level.
Typically, the Forest Service can’t use private rentals for their employees, but during emergencies like last year’s historic wildfire year, they used AirBnB and other sites. It remains to be seen whether this option will be used again in 2022.
The $65 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021 and signed by President Biden includes money for recruitment and retention of firefighters, but the specifics aren’t worked out yet. The Tim Hart Act is currently stalled, waiting for a hearing with the Congressional Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.
Reporting by the University of Montana School of Journalism students was supported by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation.