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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Land management agencies are struggling to hire enough firefighters

Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.
Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.

Federal and state land managers in Montana are not yet fully staffed with their usual number of seasonal firefighters.

The Northern Region of the U.S Forest Service typically hires about 2,000 firefighters annually. That includes a mix of full-time firefighters and seasonal part-timers, region spokesperson Dan Hottle said.

The agency’s permanent firefighting force is nearly fully staffed, while its seasonal force is “roughly in about an 80% to 90% range,” he continued.

The Forest Service faces the same workforce shortage pressures affecting the private sector, Hottle said. It’s difficult to find qualified candidates willing to do hard, entry-level firefighting work despite a promised – but yet-to-be-implemented – pay boost. He cited high housing and cost-of-living expenses as factors complicating the hiring process.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has hired about 90% of its seasonal firefighters, its spokesperson Cassie Wandersee said.

This year’s hires “don’t have quite the level of qualifications that we would have typically hired,” Wandersee added.

Both agencies are still hiring and training new seasonal firefighters, Hottle and Wandersee said. The two spokespeople expressed optimism that the agencies will be ready for anything this fire season thanks to firefighter sharing agreements with a wide network of federal, state and local partners.

There are more than 30,000 people who fight wildfires in the U.S., and about 400 firefighters have died on the job over the last two decades. As fire seasons get longer and fires become more devastating, the physical and mental toll on firefighters themselves is also growing.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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