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Credit: Illustration by Hokyoung Kim

The Big Burnout: Wildland Firefighters and the West

As record-setting blazes grow more common, poor compensation is spurring an exodus of wildland firefighters, thinning America’s last line of defense against fires. For residents of fire-prone areas, the stakes could not be higher.

In partnership with Source New Mexico and Outside Magazine.

Read an interview based on this event that has been edited for clarity and concision.

Each spring brings a game of geographic roulette: Which place will burn first? Already, the Smokehouse Creek fire raging through the Texas Panhandle has become the largest in state history.

At a moment when record-setting fires seem to occur every year, America is at risk of losing its most valuable defense: wildland firefighters. The job has always been dangerous, but it’s become even more so in recent years as blazes intensify, fire season expands and drought primes the West to burn. A new ProPublica investigation found that the Forest Service is failing to retain experienced firefighters, suffering an attrition rate of 45% among its permanent employees in the past three years. Poor compensation (wages start at $15 per hour), cancer risk and mental health issues have all contributed to this exodus.

The first part of this event will outline the many challenges federal wildland firefighters face; the second part will examine a worst-case scenario when prescribed burns go wrong. In 2022, the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires began as federal prescribed burns, then escaped and merged to become New Mexico’s biggest-ever wildfire. ProPublica and Source New Mexico spent more than a year reporting on the catastrophic aftermath, spotlighting residents’ experiences and chronicling the slow machinery of recovery under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s watch. Nearly two years later, many residents remain in an uneasy state of limbo: forced off their property, out of work and unable to rebuild. Our speakers include:

  • George Broyles, former wildland firefighter who led the Forest Service’s smoke research program between 2008 and 2014
  • Yolanda Cruz, impacted New Mexico resident
  • Ben Elkind, federal wildland firefighter entering his 17th season
  • Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico reporter and ProPublica Local Reporting Network member
  • Antonia Roybal-Mack, attorney and founder and managing partner of Roybal-Mack & Cordova PC
  • Abe Streep, journalist and author of “Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance and Hope on a Reservation in Montana”
  • Kit Rachlis, ProPublica senior editor (moderator)

This event has ended.