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Federal report centers concerns over firefighting workforce

Firefighters monitor a fall 2018 prescribed burn on the Gus Pearson Experimental Forest. The long-running experimental site north of Flagstaff was thinned 30 years ago and is burned every four years.
Melissa Sevigny
Firefighters monitor a fall 2018 prescribed burn on the Gus Pearson Experimental Forest. The long-running experimental site north of Flagstaff was thinned 30 years ago and is burned every four years.

A yearlong effort to craft recommendations for federal fire policy comes to a close today. The new report, submitted to Congress, focuses on ways to step up so-called “beneficial fire” that is managed for ecological health. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of the authors, Neil Chapman of the Flagstaff Fire Department.

If you could take one recommendation out of this report and make it happen tomorrow, which one would it be?

One of the interesting things coming out of this report is really talking about our workforce. So when you go to a large incident, there’s people there from all different organizations—Forest Service, state, local fire departments, county organizations, contractors—and it’s really an incredible diverse group responding to a wildfire. A lot of our prescribed fires don’t look like that. It’s one agency handling their acres. It’s the fire department burning city open space, is the Forest Service burning some of their lands… And what we’re really trying to do is turn that sense of urgency that we have for wildfires, in the policies and funding and implementation of those; we want to use that for prescribed fire. Our prescribed fires should be just as diverse where we’re all working together. We’re starting to see that more here in Flagstaff. But it’s not the case all over.

In other words, right now you can throw a lot of resources at an active wildfire but you can’t do the same kind of thing with a prescribed burn?

It’s really more an economic problem than an ecologic problem. If we want to scale up prescribed fire, how do we get the resources that are available to do that work, and how do we make sure we have the contracts and agreement in place to take care of the funding of that as well?

So it’s about funding and it sounds like also red tape?

Yes. And again that sense of urgency for wildfire has created a system that breaks through that red tape quite well most of the time. We just—everybody, the fire department, the state, the Forest Service, everybody—we don’t use as prescribed fire practices as effectively as we do when it comes to wildfires.

Relevant to the discussion of workforce, the temporary pay increases that we’ve seen for wildland firefighters expire at the end of this month, actually. What’s next with that?

The wildfire commission strongly supports making sure that we stabilize that pay increase and continue to assess the needs of our federal workforce. Our federal firefighters surrounding the Flagstaff community and across northern Arizona are incredibly important, and we don’t want engines sitting in a parking lot because we weren’t able to staff them when things are happening in the forest. So making sure our federal firefighters are getting paid accordingly and have the proper packages and benefits, and recognition of their job titles and the work they do, is incredibly important, and is certainly a priority when you read this commission report, that we recognize the need to take better care of our federal firefighters.

How does this all work in the context of climate change? We’re seeing these warmer temperatures and it’s really blowing up our fire seasons.

It sure is. When we look at our predicted climate trends, it adds to the sense of urgency and reduces the timeline we have to get things back in check. But at the same time I think here in the Flagstaff area, our treatments and ecological they are working…. Obviously the more variable precipitation patterns add some complexity to how we do the prescribed fire and managing wildfires, but I’m confident the track we’re on with our restoration programs are aligned with the climate trends that we’re seeing, and as long as we can continue to stay on this path of doing good things and scaling up that work, we’ll be okay in our area.

Neil Chapman, thank you for speaking with me today.

Thanks so much, Melissa.

More info: Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission | USDA

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.