‘I didn’t recognize myself’: Former federal firefighter on the deadly job and low pay

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

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

Three major fires are roaring in California right now: one in the Inland Empire, another along the 5 freeway in the Central Valley, and a third near the Oregon border. More than 10,000 acres have burned so far, forcing thousands to evacuate and a highway to close. 

But as the fire season intensifies, the firefighters best equipped to tackle those large infernos across rugged terrain are quitting. They’re called “hotshots” and are employed by the federal government. 

Hotshot crews are typically comprised of 18 to 22 people, and they’re responsible for clearing any potential fuel from a fire’s edge, says Aaron Humphrey, a former hotshot firefighter. 

“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,” Humphrey tells KCRW.

High risk, low wage

Despite their strenuous responsibilities, 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. These folks are putting their lives on the line every day. It's an extremely low-paying job for what they’re asking folks to do.”

Humphrey says that hotshot workers sometimes get paid half in comparison to those at state agencies such the U.S. Forest Service. 

“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.” 

Calling it quits

Humphrey says left the profession after multiple tours of devastating wildfires, which led to nightmares and anxiety. 

“It kind of all built up to one boiling point, if that makes sense. I realized in this job, you have to be on your A-game. You have people depending on you. And I don't feel that I was on my A-game anymore. My family was suffering financially with me being gone 140 days a year. I was dealing with a lot of just anger and depression and a lot of things that I needed to figure out about. I didn't recognize myself.”

He adds, “I came to this moment where I realized: I'm letting my family down, I'm letting myself down. And I had to take a deep look at myself. And I realized I cannot physically, mentally, and financially continue this. I love it. It was the best job in the world. But I had to do what was right by my family and myself.”

He points to a central Arizona wildfire that killed 19 of the 20 firefighters in the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew in 2013. 

He personally has faced close calls as a constant witness to the chaos and destruction of wildfires. 

“There's no way to just leave that stuff behind, if that makes sense. Even on days off or your downtime, you just can't sleep. The anxiety that is around any corner, [that] some decision you make might kill one of your friends,” he says. “I haven't been in war. And I'm not trying to sit and say it's exactly the same because I respect those men and women so much. But it feels very similar to what I would think that is.”

He says the U.S. government must step up and provide higher pay and better physical and mental care to its federal firefighters.

A worrisome fire season ahead 

This upcoming wildfire season doesn’t bode well, Humphrey suggests. 

“They're extremely short on people. And right now, it seems a lot harder now just to pick up the small [fires], what would be deemed a simple fire before. And then of course, the drought and the heat right now. This is setting up to be really terrible.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Aaron Humphrey - former firefighter, lead on PG&E Safety Infrastructure team