Manchin Evaluates Reforms to Federal Land Management and Wildland Firefighter Recruitment and Retention

June 8, 2023

To watch a video of Senator Manchin’s opening remarks, please click here. 

To watch a video of Senator Manchin’s questioning, please click here. 

Washington, DC – Today, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the Federal response to escalating wildfires and to evaluate reforms to land management and wildland firefighter recruitment and retention. During the hearing, Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) discussed the increased damage and risks posed by wildfires, the waning recruitment of wildland firefighters, the health risks associated with firefighting activities and how funds provided to Federal agencies to improve conditions for Federal firefighters and increase employment are being used. 

“In the last two decades, the top four largest wildfires in human history have occurred —in both the northern and southern hemisphere. In the US, more than half of the most destructive wildfires in our history have occurred since 2018. Also, the acres burned annually have doubled in the past 30 years and are forecast to double again in the next 30 years. Our committee has discussed at length the impacts of climate conditions and past mismanagement of our forests that has ushered in a new era of fuels and wildfires. We’ve essentially created a perfect storm and as a result have witnessed an increase in the occurrence of mega-fires with communities across the West suffering from tragic loss of life and property. While agency leaders have talked about correcting this course for some time, it unfortunately seems that with each passing year, we continue to slip farther behind,” said Chairman Manchin. 

Chairman Manchin also thanked the United States’ Federal wildland firefighting force for their work and commented on the need for reforms to recruit, retain and improve working conditions for Federal wildland firefighters. Over the last two years, Congress has provided an additional $10 billion to help Federal agencies reform the way they manage the Federal firefighting workforce and public lands.

“There are several proposals existing today that offer some creative, commonsense solutions for addressing the problems facing our firefighting workforce. For example, last year Ranking Member Barrasso and I introduced the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act, which directs the agencies to undertake a range of activities aimed at reducing fire risk on Federal lands. The bill also significantly modifies a current Federal policy related to retirement benefits for firefighters. In previous hearings, we’ve discussed how if a Federal firefighter has longer than a 3-day break in service over a 20-year career, he—or more often she—unconscionably must forfeit previously made retirement contributions. This is a policy that is impacting our workforce and needs to be fixed,” said Chairman Manchin.

During the hearing, Chairman Manchin questioned witnesses about how agency culture and retirement benefits are affecting wildland firefighter recruitment and retention.

“Mr. Johnson, in your testimony you mentioned that the current retirement system might affect the agencies’ ability to attract former firefighters to return to the Federal service. Can you tell us more about the issues you’re referring to?” asked Chairman Manchin.

“With the retirement system, firefighters who serve in a primary firefighting role are eligible for a special retirement system that is similar to law enforcement where after 20 years of service they’re eligible to retire. So, after spending those 3 years in that primary firefighting role, they're able to move on to other roles, for example support or a fire management role. If they take a break in service, and let's say they want to come back 7 years later, they have to start back over in the primary firefighting role, which we all recognize is very stressful,” replied Mr. Cardell D. Johnson, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“Why hasn’t that been changed? You have the ability to change that, I’m sure?” continued Chairman Manchin.

“Changes to that are governed by statute, so that would require legislative action,” said Mr. Johnson.

“Say no more, I think we’ve heard you loud and clear,” said Chairman Manchin.

Chairman Manchin asked about the implementation of best practices to prevent the development of cancer from firefighting activities. 

“The National Fire Protection Association recently released a new standard—Standard #1851, regarding best practices to prevent the development of cancers commonly caused by firefighting activities. They note that for every 5 degrees of increase in skin temperature, there is a 400% increase in the absorption capability of our skin and that firefighters should prioritize getting soot—which is a carcinogen—off their skin as soon as possible. What are your agencies doing to comply with this standard and are they informing firefighters of this information?” asked Chairman Manchin.

“Those sort of standard operation procedures, very much [are] a focus and priority across the entire interagency community. A specific example I would offer to illustrate that focus [is] the interagency community established a medical and public health advisory team,” said Mr. Jeffery Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire at the U.S Department of the Interior. 

Chairman Manchin also asked witnesses about wasteful federal spending if agencies fail to recruit and retain wildland firefighters. 

“When a fire comes, I understand that when we don’t have enough Federal firefighters, Federal appropriations are used to reimburse a State agency verbatim for the rate it pays its firefighters or are used to pay the private contractor whatever it wishes to charge charges. Does this mean that the [former Federal] firefighter is receiving the increased pay and the federal government is paying, and it’s better for them to work for an outside group than from within?” asked Chairman Manchin. 

“That is accurate. We, of course, depend on our cooperators and our contractors, they’re an important part of our system. If we are not able to compensate our firefighters, and they leave and go and work for those entities, the federal government is still going to be paying for that,” said Ms. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief of State, Private, and Tribal Forestry at the USDA Forest Service.

“One, when wildfires are occurring, we must respond, so the response is going to occur. Two, if you look at structurally how that [occurs], let’s say contractors’ support is paid for, it’s with suppression funds. In the case where that is more expensive, that’s one of the direct threats to the funding fix which has functioned very well up to this point,” said Mr. Rupert.

Finally, Chairman Manchin commented on the funds provided to help prevent wildfires and address issues with the federal firefighting workforce.

We’ve invested $10 billion; we’d like to know where it went to and what we’re doing to prevent these outrageous fires we’re having that are harming so many people and if we’ve done enough there. But I understand we’re going through the money right now like Grant took Richmond and doesn’t give us very good hope right now that it’s being used as effectively as it could,” said Chairman Manchin.

The hearing featured witnesses from the U.S. Department of the Interior, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and the Wyoming State Forestry Division. 

To watch the hearing in full, please click here.