‘Hotshot’ firefighters quit over low pay and dangerous conditions as heat and drought increase

The Shell Fire burns along the 5 freeway in Grapevine, California, June 27, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Three major fires are now roaring in the Inland Empire, Central Valley, and California-Oregon border. More than 10,000 acres have burned so far, forcing thousands to evacuate and a highway to close. 

However, the firefighters best equipped to tackle large infernos across rugged terrain are quitting. They’re called “hotshots” and are employed by the federal government. 

“We're the folks with the 45-pound packs, chainsaws and hand tools. … We are put in some of the most remote places to be self-sustained,” says Aaron Humphrey, a former hotshot firefighter. 

However, hotshots typically make below minimum wage, he points out. “You can go get a job at some of those fast food restaurants, and get paid better base wages than you do here.”

He adds, “These federal firefighters are sleeping in the dirt. We're not going to hotels for the most part. There's barely time to take showers if you get to take a shower and camp. Oftentimes the camps are in places that it's very smoky, very dirty and loud, so you don't sleep much. So the actual living conditions, coupled with the wages, it's pretty terrible.”