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Officials worried about staffing for upcoming Montana fire season

DNRC firefighters.jpg
Posted at 8:59 AM, Mar 24, 2022

Hiring seasonal firefighters has always been a challenge, but it may be even more difficult this year.

Management from some of the agencies that handle wildland firefighting testified in at a legislature environmental quality council meeting in Helena on Wednesday.

The Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation (DNRC) needs about 100 summer seasonal firefighters to go along with its 120 to 180 full-time employees in the fire organization part of the agency.

"We're not entirely sure when fire season starts, how many people (we) have in those positions," said Sonya Germann, Montana state forester and DNRC forestry administrator. "So we're in the very beginning of the hiring process. Right now for our seasonal firefighters."

Germann says the DNRC faces the same labor shortages seen in the private sector.

Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a minimum base pay increase of $1.70 per hour to $15.50 per hour for seasonal wildland firefighters in January. But the pay is just one of the challenges in hiring.

"It is incredibly grueling and mentally and physically," Germann said. "And something that we're pursuing in the West is providing our firefighters more resources, especially for those challenges with the mental health."

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acting state director Theresa Hanley also talked at the hearing about the hiring challenges, "we are struggling and have a challenge to find enough applicants for all of the positions that we have."

While it's a challenge hiring for a longer fire season, it's the different agencies working together that make firefighting successful.

"We have a 30-year agreement with DNRC and the (U.S.) Forest Service and BLM where we provide protection in places where one of us manages lands," Hanley said.

"It's difficult to know exactly what we're going to project," Germann said. "If we can get close to that number will be incredibly happy. And if not, we'll figure out, figure out how to get the job done."