Editor’s note: Elliot Nauert is an Extension Associate in Wildland Fire with North Carolina State Extension Forestry. His work is focused on outreach, education, and coordination to support the use of prescribed fire in the southeast. In this blog, he details his experiences working with the Nature Conservancy’s North America Fire Program, which carries a particular focus on building the prescribed fire workforce. Read more about the program in the sidebar below from the director, Marek Smith.
As fire management agencies scramble to retain a dwindling workforce, the issue of firefighter pay comes up frequently. It is encouraging to hear these conversations but I can’t help thinking it’s not enough. We know that we will be asking more of our firefighters as we work through the wildfire crisis, so we need to understand how we are going to support them through those growing demands. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has a program that enabled me to return to the fireline after the demands of the job repeatedly drove me away. While TNC’s program is focused on prescribed fire (see sidebar from Marek Smith, North America Fire Director) and my primary experience is with wildfire suppression, I think this program could serve as an example for how to create sustainable jobs for people working to address wildfire issues across the country.
Leaving the Fireline for Good
“Remember how much it sucks.” I was at a social gathering in 2009, my first fire season, when my captain, and mentor, caught me off-guard with this instruction. “Wait, what?” I asked. “When the season ends, you’re going to be exhausted and you’re never going to want to work this job again. But after a couple of weeks off, you’ll forget that and then you’ll be back again next season. So, just remember how much it sucks.” I wanted to listen, but I was still completely enamored with capital “F” Fire–and by this I mean the work and people of wildland fire management, particularly my experience with wildfire suppression– and I just couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. I brushed off his comments and we never spoke of it again. A few years later, he left Fire to become a corrections officer. The demands of a job in Fire wouldn’t allow him and his wife to raise a family the way they imagined.
I did eventually come to understand what my mentor was talking about. It’s not the work that sucks, it’s the job. Jobs in wildland fire, or Fire, as I refer to it, take a toll on your relationships, your health, and your future. That’s the reason many folks, including myself, decide they have to leave. After three seasons, I left the fireline – too exhausted to continue. But then I came back. Then I left again, then came back, and then after 10 years of back-and-forth I finally walked away – for good. I found myself a steady job teaching the public about wildland fire. It came with regular pay, benefits, an office with windows, supportive coworkers, air conditioning so cold that I kept a hoodie on my chair, and the confident expectation of sleeping in my own bed at night.
Finding Myself on the Fireline, Again
So, why, in 2023, am I on a fire assignment contemplating giving all of that up to return to Fire yet again? I’m seriously considering undoing the stability I’ve worked to build so that I can go back to the fireline full-time. Why am I wrestling with this same conflict a decade later after so many attempts to leave? If Fire really does suck, why do I keep finding myself here? Obviously, it isn’t all awful. If it were, my captain wouldn’t have waited so long to make a career switch, and I would have left “for good” the first time.
I’m pondering all of this as I sit in the back of a pickup truck on a pile of hoses, looking out across the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. The truck is driving down a dirt road in the Gila Wilderness, raising a trail of dust from the high desert floor that tastes vaguely sweet. Before the horizon in any direction there is no one but the handful of folks answering a silent, yet deafening call to know and work the land: firefighters and cowboys. The mottled granite peaks in the distance remind me of whales leaping out of a dark sea of ponderosa that laps against golden islands of rangeland. It all glows pink as a low sun cuts through the smoke. As I take it all in, I feel the giddy thrill of complete, momentary presence. The muscles around my shoulders, chest, and neck are energized just under my skin. It feels electric. There’s no feeling like it, and no other context that I’ve found that provides that feeling as readily as Fire does. I certainly don’t get this feeling in my office back home. It’s why I keep coming back.
The Value of Sunsets
It’s a running joke among folks that work in public lands that we’re “paid in sunsets.” Right now, smiling to myself in the middle of the New Mexico desert, I see clearly the ironic truth in the joke. We have willingly signed a contract to be compensated, in part, in an intangible currency equal in value to what is left out of our paychecks. If this job were mainly about the paycheck, we all would have left already. We would be corrections officers, linemen, structure firefighters, or Costco employees. Many have already left for exactly these jobs, but it is nearly always done reluctantly. For many of us, the job feels like a calling. We want to be here. We are happy to sleep in the dirt and receive modest pay in exchange for the opportunity to be on the fireline. But now, due to countless factors outside of our control, the exchange rate of sunsets is declining.
In a recent speech to Congress, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet quoted a firefighter who said, “None of us want to be millionaires. We just want to do good work, the work we love.” Senator Bennet encouraged the passage of the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act while emphasizing that improving firefighter pay is the “least we can do.” I agree; there is much more that should be done. This job must change in ways that consider the deeply human values that drive firefighters to accept sunsets as currency in the first place.
How The Nature Conservancy Makes Work with Fire Accessible
It’s two months after that truck ride in the Gila. I’m back home on the East Coast and surprised I didn’t quit my day job, fill my car with all of my possessions, and drive cross country to catch the tail end of western fire season like I would have done in the past. That surprise prompts me to think about what is different this time around: I haven’t uprooted my life to go back to the fireline because it’s not being demanded of me. My passion for working Fire isn’t being exploited. I’m not being required to go “all in” as a firefighter, something the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center warned against in a podcast back in 2017. Instead, I found an ally that honors my passion and enables me to work in fire without sacrificing all the other parts of life that energize me. They are allowing me to leave the fireline for now rather than for good.
The ally I speak of is The Nature Conservancy’s North America Fire program, which coordinated the Gila assignment. They run a mobile burn crew program assembling members from a roster of on-call folks based across North America. TNC’s North America Fire program has built partnerships with public agencies and other organizations to support their prescribed fire capacity needs on-demand while providing training opportunities to TNC crew members. This type of crew is not new, but the model is novel in its human-centered approach to supporting its people.
TNC’s North America Fire program goes out of their way to support our lives both in and outside of Fire. The biggest benefit for me is the degree to which they accommodate each person’s schedule of availability. Back when I was a full-time federal firefighter, I often felt that I had to choose between the job and the wedding I needed to attend or the doctor’s appointment I needed to make. Not so with TNC’s North America Fire. They have also remedied what was one of the hardest parts of seasonal life for me: securing housing. They take care of this for crew members no matter if they have committed to six days or six months of work. The opportunity for training and experience may be the most universal draw of the program. For many crew members, fire management is not a regular part of their day job, or they are new to Fire altogether. TNC’s North America Fire program works to identify crew members’ training needs, ensures that crews include the balance of experience and qualifications necessary to serve those needs, and makes training an explicit priority of each assignment. For some crew members, participation in the program provides the continuity of employment needed to turn their seasonal positions into full time employment with benefits. And they have addressed the lowest-hanging fruit of workforce retention by providing pay that is nearly equivalent to that of my day job.
TNC’s North America Fire program has removed many barriers that would otherwise prevent many of us from being on the fireline. The individual elements of their approach have all been part of the larger conversation about workforce retention, but this is the only program I know of that has implemented them all. The result is that they can build exceptionally diverse crews of folks from different backgrounds. They are demonstrating an investment in a workforce that is experienced in prescribed fire, is resilient to burnout, and is better able to maintain a commitment to the job.
This model isn’t perfect, and it’s easy to see how challenging it could be to translate and scale it up. The program is run almost entirely by just two incredibly dedicated administrators who manage a roster of more than 60 people, each with their own needs and availability. Because of this, the administrative side of things can be messy. But it is an expected trade-off when creating a personalized experience for each person, and it’s something that I’ve seen them improving already. I also don’t know how the costs compared to staffing full-time dedicated crews, or how the funding works. These are big picture problems though; I can really only speak to what it looks like from the ground, and it looks promising.
My experience with TNC’s North America Fire Program has made me rethink my mentor’s advice all those years ago. Maybe it doesn’t take two weeks to forget how much the job sucks. Maybe once we have more than two days off every fourteen days, the job actually doesn’t suck. We just need a little more time to remember how good this job is as one of many things we love in life. The last time I ran into my mentor, he and his wife were living the life they had imagined for themselves. He happily worked to wrangle his three kids. But we crossed paths that day because we were at a memorial service for a firefighter that had died on the fireline. What we really need to remember is that when we say this job demands everything of firefighters, it is sometimes meant literally. Remember that no matter how well we think we are taking care of our workforce, they will always have more at stake in the contract.
I believe that our success in managing wildfire will always depend on a workforce of passionate people that are happy to deal in sunsets, but it is time to renegotiate our contract. The approach of TNC’s program is showing us that we can deal in other currencies too– like time, respect, and communication. The New Mexico assignment was my third with the program, and it won’t be my last. They have reopened the door to the fireline for me and left it propped. My crew mate Marissa said it best as we all began to disperse at the end of our assignment: “[There’s] bound to be a little toe stepping when we’re first learning how to dance with new partners. It was a pleasure to share the floor with y’all. Hopefully we’ll get to boogie with each other again.”