At a time when wildfires are at their worst in U.S. history, there are fewer firefighters to try and stop them in their tracks.
The number of hotshot crews, the teams that go to the front lines of wildfires in our country, are dwindling as many parts of the country are experiencing unprecedented heat and drought.
“As far as we go with the federal firefighters, we’ve got a problem,” said Chuck Sheley, Vice President of the National Smokejumper Association.
Sheley was the only person who agreed to do an interview with us for this story.
“Everybody is terrified nowadays to speak to the press. That’s probably the reason why you can’t get any smokejumper to talk to you because they need to go through the public information officer,” said Sheley.
For 34 years, Sheley enveloped himself in a curtain of smoke, cutting fire lines. Now, he’s working at the National Smokejumper Association to peel back the curtain on why fewer men and women are joining his former profession.
“It’s tough to hire people now because you can go to the local McDonald’s and make $15 an hour, or you can jump out of an airplane and make $15 an hour and make a little overtime,” said Sheley.
According to Sheley, the wage gap between federal hotshots, many of whom are employed by the U.S. Forest Service, and private entities is massive.
In an email, the U.S. Forest Service told us the pay for federal hotshots is about half of what it is at the state level.
A CNN analysis of the pay structure digs deeper, showing that the pay discrepancy in California, a state with many of the country's wildfires, is in the range of $38,000 per year.
“Three years ago, or four years ago, I was at a meeting and the head of the smokejumpers was there and he said, ‘we’re 45 positions short this year,’ and I said ‘why?’ He gave me a list of 13 reasons why,” said Sheley.
That list included a lack of competitive wages, a lack of recruiting, and the locations.
“Who at 18, 19, or 20 years old can afford living at these wages? In other words, we’ve lost the local hiring ability, and this is a screwed-up situation in my estimation,” said Sheley.
With the national preparedness level for wildfires currently at a four, one stage below its highest level, the problem is developing into what Sheley would describe as a crisis with the peak wildfire months of July and August just getting underway.
“You’ve got to get off your butt and you’ve got to get out and get people. You can’t sit and wait for them to come to you. Otherwise, you’re not going to have a team,” said Sheley.
In its email to us, the U.S. Forest Service added, “we are working to evaluate options to modernize the firefighting workforce compensation structure, including job series, pay grade levels, and other changes.”