Wildfire outlook, hazard pay impact IDL firefighter recruitment

Posted at 3:22 AM, Apr 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-04 13:53:04-04

IDAHO — The Idaho Department of Lands has already had to respond to a wildfire this year in Mid-March. The fire was in Banks, Idaho and burned 6 acres, causing concern for the future. The department sees this as a cause for concern because of how early the fire was, but also because of the way it burned.

"It's two months ahead for a fire of that size and of that active behavior. So we are a little concerned that that might be a harbinger for things to come," said Casper Urbanek, the Southwest Fire Warden.

This isn't impacting how department approached seasonal wildland firefighter recruitment this year, which is wrapping up in April. There are starting to be discussions about what these changes in fire season will mean for the department, though.

"Our seasonals work a certain amount of time and if we have fires outside of that time period, either before or after, it is a cause for concern. So we're starting to talk about what can we do differently," Urbanek said.

It's getting more difficult to recruit wildland firefighters.

"Qualified folks are the ones that are the most difficult to find. It seems like we have a steady stream of what we would consider first-year or inexperienced firefighters but finding folks to lead our crews has really become more and more difficult over the last three to five years," Urbanek said.

These wildland firefighters are doing difficult and dangerous work for little pay.

"Individuals being right there in the burn area on their hands and knees, you know feeling around for hot spots. They're exposed to trees that have been weakened by fire, they're exposed to all sorts of overhead hazards where if the wind comes up it knocks something down and that poses a hazard--and you'll never hear it coming," said Joshua Harvey, the IDL fire management chief.

In 2021, nearby states and the federal government paid from 7-35% more than IDL — and that was before the federal government increased starting pay to $15 an hour.

The Idaho Legislature approved two changes during the 2022 session, a pay increase for the next fiscal year and the ability to pay wildland firefighters hazard pay when they're working in certain dangerous conditions.

"It will also kind of lessen the gap of the disparity between the state firefighters and the federal firefighters," Urbanek said.

IDL said this will help with recruitment and retention long term. It even helped with retention this year, since employees knew hazard pay was being discussed.