California Hotshot reflects on firefighter lifestyle and pay
Andrew Avitt Pacific Southwest August 25, 2023
This is the eighth story in a series called Affording the Fight.
When Bobby Blaine first set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, he was 23. He didn’t know much of anything about wildland fire.
“But when I was hiking the trail, I saw wildfires the whole way. It was such a devastating year,” said Blaine. “From Northern California all the way up to the Canadian border, I saw the effects of wildland fire and I wanted to do something to help. How could I help?”
Now, 6 years later, Blaine works for the Forest Service as a lead forestry technician on the American River Hotshots. He and the rest of the crew fight fire locally and across the country. When wildfire activity is high, they are ready to go in 2 hours or less – even on their days off.
“In some ways it’s exactly what I imagined,” said Blaine. “I’d say the biggest pros of the job are the camaraderie, the satisfaction we get from the work, helping communities and local forests. It changed my life, and if you become a Hotshot, it’ll change your life too, and… It might also make you a little jaded.”
Blaine is comfortable with the tough parts of the job, the long hours and the hard work. After all the job of a wildland firefighter is potentially the most physically and mentally demanding job in the United States.
No, it’s not the work. That’s not why Blaine and Forest Service wildland firefighters across the country are shaking their heads. It’s the lack of housing, poor physical and mental health, and a skewed work life balance.
And there’s another factor that influences all of the rest – compensation. Salaries have remained much lower than state, municipal, and private sector counterparts.
“The wages are low and many of us depend on the overtime, which means more time away from home, friends and family, means more work, less time to rest, means less money to secure housing, and financial struggle for those wanting to start or provide for a family,” said Blaine.
In 2022, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided federal firefighters with a pay supplement which increased pay by $20,000 or 50% of their salary, whichever was less.
“This helped most Forest Service firefighters, and it felt like a burden had been lifted,” said Blaine, “But now with the funding for the pay supplement ending in October, many wildland firefighters in the agency are wondering what’s next?”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exciting job that appeals to me in many ways. To protect the forest that I love so much, the adventure, camaraderie and the overall satisfaction we get from helping local communities and local forests,” added Blaine. “All of these things keep me coming back even though I sometimes feel mistreated or not properly compensated.”
Unfortunately, Blaine’s story is common across the Forest Service as seen in this series detailing the struggle.
He’s driven, committed, and he and his crew risk their lives to protect communities. It’s a tough job and the work isn’t getting easier. Wildfires are more prevalent, more destructive, longer burning, more frequently occurring than ever before. These firefighters are essential to keeping us safe, but in the end it’s still a challenge for them to make ends meet.
“There’s so much I love about this job,” said Blaine. “I just fear the time may come that I can no longer do the job for the Forest Service, if wages don’t catch up to state and municipal fire departments.”