The Brave Ones: Understanding the Challenges Faced by Wildland Firefighters


Don’t let the West’s impressive winter snow season and swollen rivers and reservoirs fool you: It’s wildfire season in the West.

The National Interagency Fire Center just reported on “new large wildfires” in Arizona and Washington. It went on to note that “nationally, 16 large fires have burned 91,271 acres in five states (and) since January some 24,130 wildfires have burned 678,169 acres across the United States.” Sobering as that news is, the Fire Center notes the “numbers are below the 10-year average of 27,338 wildfires and 2,111,049 acres burned.”

The Importance of Wildland Firefighters

Meanwhile, here in Colorado the Denver Post noted that crews were “continuing to fight three wildfires burning in southwestern Colorado, as weather conditions could complicate those efforts.” And things will only get more dodgy with the advent of higher temperatures and high wind.

It’s worth remembering that battling these blazes requires many firefighters; for example, more than 500 are working at Colorado’s Spring Creek Fire. The U.S. Forest Service alone employs more than 10,000 firefighters charged with working at fires in national forests and with other tribal, state, and local agencies. Clearly, it’s important to recruit and retain these brave firefighters.

A Burning Problem

But pay is an issue when it comes to federal firefighters. (State-employed firefighters tend to earn higher salaries). At the end of 2021, Colorado Public radio reports “wildland firefighters got a big pay boost from the bipartisan infrastructure law. But that temporary raise of $20,000, or 50% of their base salary (whichever was less), goes away Sept. 30.”

This isn’t a new issue: At a recent Senate hearing, a Federal News Network story noted a 2022 GAO report that showed “low pay as the top barrier (to recruitment and retention of firefighters), despite federal actions to increase firefighter pay … industries such as food service, offer equal or better pay for less dangerous work.”

“Some firefighters are living out of their cars because they cannot afford housing,” Cardell Johnson, a Government Accountability Office Director of Natural Resources and Environment, said at the hearing.

Legislation to the Rescue

Wyoming Sen. John Barasso echoed the notion that wildland firefighters have done a lot, for little in return. “The only way to ensure that we have enough firefighters to defend our forests into the future is to ensure that they are fully supported and compensated.”

How to solve the issue? One way might be through recent legislation introduced by Colorado’s Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse to update federal wildland firefighter pay and benefits. The legislation would “increase base pay, improve deployment pay, support enhanced pay management oversight, and ensure firefighters receive paid rest and recuperation leave.” Also included:  addressing mental and physical health, along with “housing, retirement and tuition assistance benefits.”

A Natural Cycle

While it’s essential that we have adequate resources and manpower to battle wildfires, it’s also important to remember that wildfires are part of the natural cycle in forests. For example, the Lake Christine wildfire in western Colorado scorched 12,000 acres in 2018. But Axios Denver recently reported on a tour of the area led by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies that illustrated how the landscape is rebounding, and in fact is “more biodiverse and resilient with stands of mature trees that survived and new growth amid fire-scarred trees.”

Understanding Wildfires and Land Ownership

As wildfire season approaches in the West, it becomes increasingly important for landowners to possess a comprehensive understanding of how to safeguard their properties. On this week’s podcast, we delve back into Haley’s enlightening conversation with Ken Mirr, the Founder of Mirr Ranch Group, and Jared Souza, a Senior VP at Mirr as well as a dedicated volunteer wildland firefighter. Together, we explore a range of crucial topics, including the response to wildfires, their effective management, optimal mitigation techniques, and the invaluable role wildfires play in shaping the landscape and habitat of your property.

Tune in wherever you listen to your podcasts.


CONSERVATION MILESTONE: The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) was established in 1995 with a mission to conserve the state’s western heritage and working landscapes. The latter part of that mission is especially critical, as we lose 175 acres of farmland every hour in the U.S., according to the American Farmland Trust.

So the recent news of CCALT’s completion of the Delhi Ranch project conservation easement, in some ways, was business as usual for an organization that has partnered with more than 400 families over the years. But Executive Director Erik L. Glenn notes the easement represented a significant milestone: The trust has now surpassed 750,000 acres conserved in Colorado, another success for the organization that stands fourth nationally in total acres conserved by a statewide or regional land trust.

Having just been elected to my third term on the CCALT board, I’m especially excited about this news.  And I am looking forward to chairing the Additive Conservation Committee, which helps guide the work of CCALT with landowners, who have already conserved their properties, to implement projects that support long-term stewardship goals and conservation values.

By the way: you don’t need to be a board member to support this great cause. Just join us on Aug. 12 for our 2023 Forever Colorado BBQ at Greenland Ranch in Douglas County, Colorado.

Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at

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