Firefighting is hard work. It’s even harder when you live without your car.

The month Rachel Granberg spent hunkered down in an abandoned government building was unintentional. It was 2015, his rookie year in the beautiful Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. Initially, the Forest Service had provided him with accommodation. In November, however, the Forest Service closed this accommodation for the winter, leaving Granberg with no place to live for the last month of its season. (Note: Although Granberg still works for the Forest Service, his words do not represent the agency.)

“I ended up squatting in a gym storage building at a district labor center, and I think I was there for a couple of weeks before they realized I was sleeping on a folding table. in the back room tucked behind the gym,” she said. .

Granberg now lives in East Wenatchee, Washington, and works as a senior forestry technician with the Forest Service. She tries to shed some light on sleeping on a table in November 2015, but her conditions were quite distressing. She opted for the table to get away from the mice and used a Gatorade bottle filled with boiled water to keep her feet warm.

“I didn’t have running water or a toilet,” she says. “I was like, cooking ramen in my little camp stove with an open window, and going to the bathroom outside, strategically going to cafes. And then I had a gym membership, so that’s where I was able to, you know, take a shower.

Granberg’s story is one she has discussed a lot with other firefighters, and they will add some of their own. Firefighters live off their cars and trailers and camp on the side of the road, even when not actively fighting a fire. Michelle Hart, wife of forest firefighter Tim Hart, remembers her husband’s coping methods.

“He ended up living in his truck for the three years he was in Grangeville,” Michelle explains. “And I remember calling him at night, and those hot summer nights would get over 100 degrees sometimes, and he was sleeping – trying to sleep – in the back of his truck. And he had it better than some of his other smoke brothers who slept in the passenger seat of their car.

Tim’s 2007 GMC Sierra is in Michelle’s garage. He welded two solar panels to the brown shell of the truck camper. The panels charged a battery which he used to power a small camping stove or heater. He stored food in a cooler that fit into the back seat. He also made what he called the “Patented Sleep System,” which is basically two-by-four slats.

“And I knew our relationship was going great when I came home from work one day and found he had built an extension on his sleeping platform that was removable,” Michelle says. “I knew it was a big deal that he built this expansion just for me on it.”

Tim died last summer while fighting the Eiks fire in New Mexico. He and Michelle had just bought a house in Cody, Wyoming the previous year. Although Michelle still has her signature truck parked in the garage, she doesn’t drive it anywhere. She doesn’t know if she can bear to sell it.

Tim loved his job, but poor living conditions and poor pay put a strain on the couple’s relationship – and Tim’s sleep schedule. This too was not uncommon. In 2021, the advocacy organization Grassroots Wildland Firefighters questioned the spouses forest firefighters. Nearly half of respondents said their partners had insufficient or poor quality sleep during fire season.

“He liked the people he worked with, but he wanted to get away as much as possible, so he wouldn’t have to do that, so I think that says enough about what it was like for him,” says Michelle. .

Michelle saw the impact of unstable living conditions on Tim and their relationship. The two had spoken of him trying a new profession after the 2021 fire season.

The Forest Service has struggled to find and retain firefighters, as Grassroots Wildland Firefighters reported that 20% of permanent Forest Service firefighter positions are currently vacant. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the organization has only reached 90% of its overall hiring goal this year, with some regions only reaching 50%. The organization believes that meeting the needs of today’s firefighters will fight against this exodus.

These needs are central to the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighters Classification and Pay Equity Act. Michelle Hart worked with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters on this bill, which would improve compensation, benefits, pensions and mental health resources for federal firefighters. There is also a section of the bill focused on housing allowances for firefighters. These stipends allow firefighters to obtain housing during fire season without having to worry so much about costs that eat into their personal savings.

This legislation appears to be a step in the right direction for Michelle and other supporters. The Forest Service has made no official announcement regarding improved housing conditions for federal firefighters. Suzanne Flory, Forest Service press officer, said any decisions about creating new housing or maintaining existing housing are handled by staff at the local forest level.

The Forest Service typically cannot use private rentals for its employees, but in emergencies like last year, they used AirBnB and other locations. It remains to be seen whether this option will be used again in 2022.

The $65 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 and signed by President Biden includes funds for recruiting and retaining firefighters, but details are yet to be defined. The Tim Hart Act is currently stalled, pending a hearing with the Congressional Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.

This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.

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