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Facing extreme wildfire season, feds appeal to 'new generation' to fill crews

Billions in new infrastructure spending will pay for raises and job upgrades. Sen. Mark Kelly says the law's investments can mitigate wildfires in Arizona.

PHOENIX — With another extreme wildfire season looming, the U.S. Forest Service finds itself in the same position as other employers - hiring workers in a tight job market.

"How do you recruit to get people into the entry-level position?" U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in an interview Tuesday, sounding much like the hiring manager for any business these days.

Moore is hiring for one of the toughest jobs around - wildland firefighter. 

Shortages of federal firefighters hampered the battle against massive California wildfires last summer. 

"One thing I appreciate about the Forest Service firefighters is it's a lifestyle you bought off on," Moore said. "But over time, everything changes. 

"You have a new generation of firefighters coming in that may not be willing to live that same lifestyle. How should the agency change to be more attractive?"

With another tough fire season looming, the Forest Service is filling firefighter positions now. 

It's doing what any other business might do: offer recruits and current employees a better deal:

-Boosting entry-level pay to a minimum of $15 an hour. 

-Converting 1,000 temporary firefighters to full-time jobs.

-Finding housing in Airbnb-type settings for firefighters accustomed to sleeping in cars. 

-Recruiting from non-traditional firefighting sources: military veterans, urban African-Americans and Latinos.

RELATED: Army ups bonuses for recruits to $50K, as COVID takes toll

The Forest Service chief was in Phoenix Tuesday with his boss -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack -- and U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona.

They were rolling out a new $61 billion national wildfire strategy and speaking in urgent terms about heading off future disasters. 

"What we can do is begin the process of reducing the catastrophic nature of those fires," said Vilsack, who is in his second tour as agriculture secretary. He held the job during President Barack Obama's eight years in office.

"The truth is, drought and climate change will only deepen this crisis," Sen. Kelly said.

The new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will make a down payment this year on the first phase of the 10-year strategic plan, including the firefighter funding.

Vilsack said $54 million would be spent this year on projects in Arizona's High Country.

"We know from a scientific standpoint where these actions have to take place in the forest in order to protect communities, protect people," Vilsack said.

The money will be funneled to "4FRI" - the 4 Forests Restoration Initiative - a long-term program to clear forests of the fuel that can feed wildfires.

The national plan envisions the use of controlled fires and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation in at-risk areas.

Also targeted for funding in Arizona are recovery and mitigation projects to repair land devastated by wildfires, such as the Flagstaff area charred by the Museum Fire in 2019; the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project; the Coconino National Forest Cragin Watershed Projection Project; and the Tonto National Forest Cooperative Forest Restoration Project.

RELATED: New nonprofit aims to replenish Arizona's scorched desert

RELATED: Arizona wildfires have burned more acres than the next four most-burned states combined, officials say

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