The U.S. Needs Wildland Firefighters More Than Ever, but Is Losing Them

"Black Butte is an inactive volcano that rises from the high desert in eastern Oregon. In May 2022, a turboprop plane approached its pine-blanketed slopes, carrying about 10 men wearing bulky Kevlar outfits. They were smokejumpers with the United States Forest Service, the agency that directs the majority of the nation’s efforts to manage wildfires. Within the vast and hierarchical fire service, smokejumpers occupy a singular niche, parachuting into remote areas to fight early-stage wildfires. There are only about 450 nationwide, and the physical requirements are rigorous.

One of the smokejumpers on board was Ben Elkind. Thirty-seven years old with a long, athletic build and restless energy, he had been fighting wildfires for 14 years and jumping for the last eight of them. Despite his elite status, Elkind earned about $43,000 in 2021 over the course of the seven-month fire season. His base paycheck, though, was less than half of that. Like most wildland firefighters, he relied on overtime and hazard pay, which can be accumulated on two- or three-week shifts away from home. Many firefighters exceed 1,000 hours of overtime in a season. Elkind chose to be with his wife and two young children more that year and worked a relatively modest 700 hours of overtime, the equivalent of 17 additional weeks.

Still, the beginning of the season usually rekindled the parts of the job that Elkind loved — especially the adrenalized clarity that arrived when his crew’s spotter tapped him on the back, indicating that it was time to jump. In recent years, the Forest Service has switched from round parachutes to rectangular ones, which allow for greater maneuverability. During training exercises that spring, Elkind was still getting accustomed to the new chute. After he slid out of the plane’s open door, a tailwind picked up. He did not descend quickly enough to the landing zone, sailing slightly past it. He saw ponderosa pines rushing toward him and tried to slow his chute. Its canopy collapsed, and he free fell. When he landed, his left leg crashed through his pelvis. Colleagues rushed to him, cutting his suit away. An ambulance sped him to a hospital, where doctors would eventually insert three plates and 12 screws into his hip. He was sent home on painkillers."

Abe Streep reports for ProPublica with illustrations by Hokyoung Kim March 16, 2024.

Source: ProPublica, 03/19/2024