BLM firefighters

Thousands of firefighters from local, state and federal agencies battle wildfires each year.

BOISE — Federal and state agencies are adding firefighters, boosting wages and increasing the number of full-time positions as managers anticipate more and bigger wildfires in the years ahead.

More than 11,300 federal firefighters were working on large fires in the U.S. as of early October. The year’s peak was above 19,000 in July. The record high, 32,700, was in September of 2020, as fire activity surged in the Northwest and California, said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“This year, while we did not set records in the number of personnel assigned to large incidents, we had a much more steady number of personnel assigned to fires throughout the summer and into fall,” she said.

The Idaho Department of Lands had 24 full-time fire personnel in 2021, the same as in 2020. Seasonal firefighters totaled 135, up four. The department this year also hired 35 temporary employees for its Interagency Supply Cache plus had 18 National Guard members.

“We are staffed such that we can provide rapid, aggressive initial attack,” said State Forester Craig Foss, who is based in Coeur d’Alene.

Idaho crews often work near populated areas, so they prioritize controlling fires quickly and keeping them small.

“When you get beyond initial attack and it’s apparent you’re not going to catch that fire in a couple of days, we would order an incident management team,” Foss said. “They typically have different and higher levels of qualification, and that team typically has access to more resources.”

Fire growth prompts need for bigger crews, which were in short supply this year and in 2020, he said. The department wants to build its own 20-person hand crew — to use itself or make available to other jurisdictions — and a northern Idaho “booster” crew of 10 to augment a southwest region team.

The department will request more firefighter funding from the 2022 Idaho Legislature, as it did in 2021.

Qualified crew bosses are needed, Foss said. At the same time, increasing headcount and pay in temporary-seasonal ranks could help Idaho keep more firefighters — some of whom could advance into leadership roles key to building and managing teams.

California on Oct. 1 had more than 8,600 firefighters on front lines of the state’s 10 major wildfires, CalFire reported. Agency spokesman Sean McFadden said headcount peaked Sept. 7 at just more than 15,000. Totals include state and local firefighters and federal personnel.

Oregon had 1,176 firefighters and support personnel Oct. 3 including federal employees. The total was 3,708 a year earlier.

Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Jim Gersbach said the agency hires about 600 temporary firefighters each year to join its permanent staff of 200. It can tap another 100 standbys from other jobs in the department. The Office of the State Fire Marshal can also send teams.

Thomas Kyle-Milward, wildfire communications manager with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said there were just below 2,000 local, state and federal fire personnel operating in the state Oct. 5 compared to just over 4,000 at the midsummer peak.

The department employs 557 seasonal firefighters and 113 full-time. About 100 more will be hired full-time next year, he said.

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