Nationwide hiring troubles are taking their toll on firefighting resources, making it hard for federal and state agencies to staff full crews of firefighters and equipment operators this year.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has just 81% of its normal firefighting staff — 267 instead of 330. At the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, only 77% of the standard crew is available this year, with 23 instead of 30 smokejumpers. The base is also down one air-attack helicopter, a problem connected with contracting issues across the United States, said Okanogan-Wenatchee Assistant Fire Management Officer/Operations Mike Davis at a U.S. Forest Service media briefing last week.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee normally has six initial-attack crews with 20 firefighters each. This season, those units are averaging 18 crew members, although some have 23 people, Davis said. When fully staffed, the forest has 11 engines, but this year there are only nine.
The air-attack plane that directs air operations will be shared with other areas as needed. One unit that is fully staffed with 20 people is the Entiat Interagency Hotshot crew.
The U.S. Forest Service has had trouble hiring crew captains as well as entry-level firefighters. In addition, the Central Washington Interagency Communication Center, which handles dispatch for wildland fire starts, is short-handed. They’re training new dispatchers for an area that covers more than half of the state, according to the briefing.
While some hiring problems are similar to those across the country, this region faces additional challenges, Davis said. The housing shortage in North Central Washington makes it difficult to find temporary employees.
Besides that, wages are not competitive — entry-level firefighters earn $15 an hour, which they could make at a fast-food job, he said. And students who might consider firefighting as a summer job need to apply in September, too early for some of them to plan. The Forest Service hopes that a pay incentive included in new federal funding will attract firefighters over the next couple of years, Davis said.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is also having trouble recruiting firefighters and heavy-equipment operators. The agency has also been hit by supply-chain issues that have delayed the vehicles they need to transport that equipment, DNR Assistant Division Manager for Plans and Information Angie Lane said early this month.
DNR also has vacancies because the agency used extra funding to create job opportunities for existing fire staff, who advanced to other positions and haven’t all been replaced, she said.
Like others in the wildland-fire world, Okanogan-Wenatchee fire staff are getting a respite because of the unusually cool and wet spring, which has maintained a healthy mountain snowpack.
But fire professionals are keeping tabs on grasses that have sprouted to 5 or 6 feet and will dry out quickly and become abundant fuel later in the summer. Those grasses are of particular concern because they’re closer to where people live than the trees at higher elevations, which will hold their moisture for much of the summer, Davis said.
While the mountain snowpack in Washington is still robust, Eastern Oregon is already seeing dry conditions, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for June through September, issued by the National Interagency Fire Center.
By August, the elevated risk will expand to include North Central Washington. In September, the risk of significant fires in the Pacific Northwest will diminish, but it will continue in much of the Cascades, according to the outlook.
The National Interagency Fire Center forecasts above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall for this area from July through September.