“Nobody cares, I have nowhere to live”: Forest firefighters fight homelessness | Forest fires

Dn his first season as a wildland firefighter with the Idaho Lands Department, Luke Meyer camped in a decrepit rodent infested building. It was in 2017 and it was a 20 years rookie earning $ 11 an hour. In the rural community where he worked, outside of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, housing was scarce and rent was a luxury he couldn’t afford.

Meyers kept a mattress inside a tent on the floor of his temporary home, provided free of charge by his employer, to prevent mice from crawling on his chest while he slept.

As he rose through the ranks, he did little to improve Meyer’s living conditions. Four fire seasons later – with thousands of hours of firefighting saved, a new job with the US Forest Service, and new certifications to supervise small crews – Meyer was living in the back of his truck.

“I love this job and the people I work with,” Meyer said. “But is it worth living like this, with so much uncertainty?” The answer, he decided, was no. His last day as a forest firefighter was August 27.

At a time when wildfires are forcing communities to evacuate or live under layers of ash and smoke, workers say they are excluded from fighting wildfires by low wages and few options to find affordable housing.

“I’m on food stamps and I live in a cabin in someone’s backyard. It’s the only accommodation I can afford, ”said a member of an elite Forest Service helicopter unit in Arizona who earns $ 15 an hour transporting crews to fire zones. by helicopter. Previously, he had lived in a van without air conditioning and had suffered from heatstroke after temperatures rose above 109F.

As climate change brings droughts and extreme heat to the western United States, the wildfire season continues to lengthen and intensify. The fires largely concentrated in the American West have burned more than 5.6 million acres since January and nearly 18,000 firefighters have been deployed across the country.

Firefighters are resting after a night of battling the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera Counties, Calif., Last year. Photograph: Paul Kuroda / ZUMA Wire / REX / Shutterstock

The demand is overwhelming for crews already overwhelmed. With the pace of work not expected to stop anytime soon, many are wondering if there is a future in the world of forest firefighting.

“Every year I wonder if I’ll be back next season,” said a 35-year-old Forest Service firefighter. “If you are looking to settle down with a home and a family, this career keeps that at bay.”

Drive out overtime

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several wildland firefighters of different ages and rank told The Guardian about their experiences with homelessness and continuing economic uncertainty.

The workforce depends on large numbers of temporary and seasonal workers who spend four to six months on the job, often away from their families, and then are laid off at the end of the fire season. Salaries typically range between $ 15 and $ 20 an hour, even for very experienced wildland firefighters, forcing many people to rely heavily on overtime to increase their income and maintain it during the off-season.

“I survive by continuing as much overtime as possible,” said the 35-year-old forest service firefighter. “Sometimes I work 80 to 100 hours a week.

Several agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, said they plan to convert more seasonal job vacancies into permanent ones, recognizing the increasing demands brought on by climate change and the need to provide its workforce with is pursuing a stable and financially viable career path.

But workers continue to struggle to find affordable housing. None of the federal agencies that oversee wildland firefighting guarantee housing for all workers. Some locations offer dorm rooms for free or at discounted rates, but employees say those benefits are inconsistent.

A team of US Forest Service firefighters arrive to fight the Caldor in Meyers, Calif., In August.
A team of US Forest Service firefighters arrive to fight the Caldor in Meyers, Calif., In August. Photograph: Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

“I went from a comfortable life in a dorm for just over $ 100 a month one season to a miserable life in my car the next,” said a 37-year-old member of a helitack unit with a decade of experience with the Forest Service, which earns $ 20 an hour.

Another Forest Service employee, 29, noted that his hourly wage was not enough to pay rent in California. He spent the season living in a tent next to his car. “Sometimes accommodation is provided, but usually it is not,” he said. “It can vary greatly from season to season.”

Other firefighters say they are encouraged to live in their vehicles during the fire season.

“I bought a truck because I thought it would open up more opportunities,” said a 23-year-old firefighter with the Montana Forest Service. “And I was right. People were much happier to hire me because they knew I would be living in a car and wouldn’t need help with housing.

Such uncertainty can have negative consequences on the mental health of firefighters, as well as on loved ones and families. Michelle Hart, whose husband, Tim, died from injuries sustained in a parachute drop into a fire zone last summer, says her husband has had housing issues for years.

“For three seasons he lived in his truck. He had to pay to park in a field with other smokejumpers, ”she said. “Some literally slept in the front seat of their car. I have seen the toll this has given him, and I know that many firefighters face the same problem. “

These problems, along with other stresses that arise from the dangerous nature of firefighting, come at a cost that is not abstract to many. “By the end of my second season, two of my peers had died from suicide or substance abuse,” said the 35-year-old.

New hope for a “tired workforce”

With the scale of wildfires becoming impossible to ignore, politicians have started to look into how workers are affected. On October 19, Representative Joe Neguse introduced the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Equal Pay Act with Representatives Katie Porter and Liz Cheney, which would revise the compensation, benefits and classifications of federal firefighter workers. . Tim’s Act is named after Michelle’s husband, Tim Hart.

Neguse told the Guardian that the low pay for wildland firefighters was “just outrageous.” His bill, which is a stand-alone law, would increase hourly wages to $ 20 an hour, provide housing allowances for firefighters on duty more than 80 kilometers from their primary residence, extend retirement benefits to temporary workers and seasonal workers and expand mental health benefits. , among other provisions.

On a recent visit to the western United States, Joe Biden used the spectacle of the fires to promote his $ 1 billion infrastructure bill, which also includes investments in climate resilience and $ 600 million. for forest firefighters. If passed, it would result in an estimated annual salary increase of $ 20,000 for federal wildland firefighters. But with the future of the infrastructure bill uncertain, Tim’s Law could become the focus of legislative efforts to improve the standing of wildland firefighters.

But others, like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group, would like to see the government think bigger by providing housing and health care benefits. “We are happy to see this issue garner more attention,” said Jonathon Golden, policy adviser at Grassroots. “But we are seeing a tired workforce. There has been a lack of investment and that needs to change in the long term.

After more than a decade in the forest service, the 37-year-old helitack unit employee feels guilty that his family has had to make sacrifices due to the instability of his profession.

“My wife has basically had to shape her life around the whims of the forest service,” he said. “When I lived in my car, I would sometimes call her at night crying. You start to think, well, no one seems to care that I have nowhere to live. Maybe that’s what I deserve.

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