The big burnout: Life on the front lines of America’s wildfires

With record-setting blazes becoming more and more common, the demands placed on wildland firefighters are greater than ever. Already this year, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which broke out in the Texas Panhandle in February, has become the second-largest wildfire in U.S. history, burning nearly 1.1 million acres. Last year, a relatively quiet fire season, saw the Lahaina fire on Maui, Hawaii’s largest-ever wildfire and one of the deadliest on record, with at least 100 fatalities. The previous year, New Mexico experienced its biggest and second-biggest fires simultaneously — the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in the northern half of the state and the Black Fire down south.

But at this crucial hour, America’s last line of defense against fires is fraying. A recent ProPublica investigation found that the Forest Service is losing wildland firefighters, suffering an attrition rate of 45% among its permanent employees in the past three years. The investigation spotlighted the challenges that wildland firefighters face: weeklong stretches away from family, a bureaucracy indifferent to physical and mental health concerns and a byzantine pay structure that incentivizes risk.

When asked about the attrition, a Forest Service spokesperson wrote, “It is accurate to say that the U.S. Forest Service has lost firefighters to better paying jobs,” adding that the dynamic “is more pronounced in specific regions and states.”

For the fire-prone West, the stakes could not be higher. In 2022, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire began when a federal prescribed burn escaped and merged with the smoldering remnants of another controlled burn to become New Mexico’s biggest-ever wildfire. ProPublica and its Local Reporting Network partner Source New Mexico spent more than a year reporting “The Long Burn” series, which chronicled the slow recovery from the fire. The reporting revealed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had only paid out 1% of the $4 billion fund to compensate victims seven months after Congress approved it and that the agency had provided little temporary housing for survivors. The reporting also spotlighted ongoing lawsuits victims filed against FEMA to gain compensation for noneconomic damages and survivors’ hard-earned lessons learned from navigating disaster aid.

“We’re past the point of needing research. It’s absolutely clear that wildland firefighting is a cancer-causing occupation.”

The U.S. Forest Service has said the wildfire prompted the agency to examine how to do its work more safely. FEMA officials have said they moved as quickly as possible to set up a claims office to pay for damages, a mission quite different from what it normally does, which is to provide short-term disaster aid. As of April 8, FEMA had paid out about 12% of the $4 billion fund.

At a recent virtual event in partnership with Source New Mexico and Outside Magazine, ProPublica convened a roundtable featuring the reporters and their sources to discuss these investigations. The first half of the hourlong discussion outlined the factors contributing to the exodus of firefighters from the Forest Service and what could be done to stem it. The second part examined the devastating aftermath of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the grinding machinery of recovery under FEMA and the state of rebuilding efforts. Speakers included:

  • Kit Rachils, senior editor at ProPublica
  • Ben Elkind, wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service
  • George Broyles, former wildland firefighter and public information officer, who spearheaded the Forest Service’s research into the physiological impacts of wildfire smoke from 2008 to 2014
  • Pat Lohmann, reporter for Source New Mexico
  • Yolanda Cruz, New Mexico resident affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire
  • Antonia Roybal-Mack, founder and managing partner of Roybal-Mack & Cordova PC and an attorney representing many New Mexico families affected by the fires

This interview, based on that event, has been edited for clarity and concision.

More Fires, Fewer Firefighters

Kit Rachlis: Ben, can you describe the challenges you face as you enter your 17th season fighting fires?

Ben Elkind: This year I took a job that’s three hours away from where I’ve been working for the last 10 years. The first thing I think about is, I’ve got a family in Redmond, Oregon, and we’re lucky we don’t own a house there, because now I’ve got to move. Just a few years ago, the Forest Service had a program where they would have bought your house and helped you with moving costs. Child care is difficult. One of the reasons we’re moving is so my mom can help out with child care.

Rachlis: What are the health risks of fighting wildfires? And what accounts for the Forest Service’s extraordinarily slow response to those concerns?

George Broyles: Their slowness to research dates back to 1989, when the National Wildfire Coordinating Group recommended that research needed to be done. Those experts understood there is a concern for cancer and respiratory disease for men and women like Ben who spent their career in smoke. I’m a proponent of research, but to a large degree, we’re past the point of needing research. It’s absolutely clear that wildland firefighting is a cancer-causing occupation.

Rachlis: What changes would you like to see in the Forest Service?

Broyles: I think they really need to be transparent with their employees. Exposure to noise is another topic I spent years researching, and it’s extremely hazardous. It causes hearing loss. It causes mental decomposition. It literally makes it harder to comprehend speech and think clearly, which is critical when you’re in that environment. The law is very clear on what employers have to do when folks are exposed to noise.

The agency had a small publication put out a few years ago, talking to people who wanted to become firefighters about what the risks are, but the word “cancer” was not in that. The term “noise-induced hearing loss” was not in there. These are really critical health issues that our firefighters face on a daily basis, and the agency continues to bury its head in the sand. I’ve had cancer, and I’ve got hearing loss. The young men and women coming in absolutely need to know what they’re facing. The agency has to say, “This is what we’re going to do to protect you, because when you retire, we want you to be healthier.”

Elkind: The way that we pay people with hazard pay is probably one of my top issues. The way the system works is: You’re actively incentivized to take on more risk to increase your pay for the day. You may have a lifelong illness — cancer, hearing issues — all these things you don’t get hazard pay for, even though it was from the work you did. When you retire, your hazard pay doesn’t count for your retirement pension. Also, your hazard pay doesn’t count for your worker’s compensation. It’s this pretty significant part of our income we rely on. People are getting 2,000 hours of hazard pay a year, and it’s 25% of your base pay. I think the incentives that we put in front of firefighters really need to be looked at in a holistic way, because I don’t think we’ve looked at how we’re paying people in a long, long time.

When a Controlled Burn Becomes a Wildfire

Rachlis: Through its Local Reporting Network, ProPublica worked with Source New Mexico to examine the grinding machinery of recovery under FEMA. Pat, could you provide some context about the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and summarize the aftermath?

Pat Lohmann: New Mexico was the national epicenter for wildfire throughout the summer of 2022, where we had not only the biggest wildfire in our history, but the second biggest in southern New Mexico, called the Black Fire. What makes the Hermits Peak and the Calf Canyon fire different from the other 20 that were burning simultaneously in New Mexico is that both of them were the result of botched prescribed burns, ignited by the Forest Service on federal land. Ultimately those two fires merged and became what we know as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which, over the course of several months, burned more than 530 square miles of land in a section of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, taking with it several hundred homes and acres of trees on federal and private land.

In late 2022, Congress approved nearly $4 billion to fully compensate victims of this fire. Beginning in January of last year, the question became: When the government makes a mistake this massive, what is it going to do to fully compensate the victims of that mistake? That was the question that undergirds most of our reporting, from examining the Stafford Act programs, which are the way FEMA handles every disaster that occurs, to the establishment of the claims office and this $4 billion fund.

Rachlis: Yolanda, can you tell us about the losses you and your family have endured in the fire and the status of your claims?

Yolanda Cruz: My family and I have 10 acres of property between Sapello and Rociada, and the fire crossed over the entire 10 acres. We were very fortunate that it did not take our home. The high-severity burn came right up to where we had raked and watered. We did lose about half of the trees on the property as well as a lot of personal items — vehicles and other items in our yard. My parents live in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and they had to leave because of medical reasons. So their losses were more along the lines of smoke damage and evacuation.

I have a few proofs of loss with FEMA right now. I have received a settlement offer on the smaller claim, and I have not heard anything on the other ones. The larger one was lost by FEMA, and I found that out about a week ago. Then on my parents’ claims, I was able to help them get the one settled for their evacuation, but it did take about nine months.

Rachlis: Antonia, as the attorney for many of those families, can you describe how FEMA has handled this, or not handled this, and what you’re trying to do to rectify the situation?

Antonia Roybal-Mack: FEMA is not set up to handle large volumes of claims. FEMA does not have the legal resources, the experts or the personnel to do this. There are companies around the country that could come in and set up a large claims process like this, and FEMA has refused to do that. What we’re trying to do is get transparency for the families, get speed and make sure that families receive 100% of what they lost, because this was the fault of the federal government. I represent hundreds of families, and we just want FEMA to do their job and get people paid and get people back in homes with as little litigation as necessary.

Rachlis: Yolanda, it’s been nearly two years since the fire. What do you and your neighbors need the most right now?

Cruz: We need this to be done, so we can move forward with our lives. There are still many people who have not been able to rebuild. As I’ve said, we were very fortunate that our home was still there. But we did have substantial damage to our well, to our septic system, to our road. There’s been so much anger and mistrust, but also a lack of resources. There are people who’ve had to relocate, who’ve been displaced, and the longer this takes to get settled, the longer it takes for people to heal and move forward.

Rachlis: What lessons are to be taken away from these experiences?

Roybal-Mack: I think what we learned is that rural America is not prepared for disaster. What we also learned is that on a national level, FEMA, the agency that we think is going to show up and help when there’s a disaster, is not well prepared to do so. I think as a country, we really need to look at the role of FEMA and put resources in our Department of Homeland Security. I think governments need good emergency management plans that are updated annually, and people need to just really be prepared for disaster for themselves and for their families, because FEMA is not up to the task.

Cruz: When President Biden visited the area and said everyone would be compensated and we heard that as well from our elected officials, the private philanthropy dollars began to slow down, because everyone thought the government had this. When that didn’t happen, the local community continued to care for the people who are impacted. Now things finally seem to be moving slowly with FEMA, but it’s not enough. There is so much bureaucracy and red tape. It shouldn’t take so long. You go through a “navigator” who goes through their supervisors, who go through three or four levels up and then come three or four levels down. In that process, paperwork gets lost, people are asked to do things over and over again. And a lot of people are just giving up with the whole process. The government just needs to figure out a better way to get resources on the ground.

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