Worker Correspondents: ‘Hero’ Myth Serves as a Farce to Exploit Wildland Firefighters

Source: Twitter @mrfirerob4

By an Oregon Firefighter

Politicians, monopoly media, and public figures frequently commend wildland firefighters for their sacrifice and commitment to keeping communities safe, however, the outpouring of praise and thanks stands in stark contrast to actual job conditions, which include low pay and poor living conditions. Many firefighters are rightfully proud of the important work that we do. The sacrifices we make arise not only out of the naturally hazardous work conditions but with the political and economic factors which exploit us as workers. This rhetoric serves as a cover for oppressive and undignified labor conditions.

This contradiction is even more apparent for military veterans in wildland firefighting and the timber industry more broadly. Chris, one veteran firefighter with whom I spoke, entered the industry after working in an Americorps program that specifically recruits veterans. While doing fire prevention work with Americorps, his supervisors expected him and his coworkers to work “under a tree with a chainsaw” ten hours a day, not including time for travel and chainsaw maintenance. The workers, many of whom had young children, were only compensated $900 per month, and most subsisted with food stamps and by trading additional assignments on the side for housing with locals.

Americorps was keen on preventing Chris and his coworkers from organizing. In the tentative hiring letter, Americorps informed workers that organizing a union is immediate grounds for termination, a point they prioritized above their discrimination and harassment policy in the document. Throughout his tenure with Americorps, Chris and his coworkers received frequent praise from supervisors for their service in the military but coupled with the arduous and underpaid work they grew to disdain the disingenuous remarks.

Now working on a hotshot hand crew (a more elite team of firefighters that engages in more active parts of the fire), Chris encounters the double-sided lip service of being thanked for his service as a veteran and a firefighter without any material efforts to actually improve working conditions. He describes this as an “annoyance” that amounts to “a lot of yard signs but not much more.” The praise serves as a distraction, implying that firefighters voluntarily enter into an industry that is inherently and irredeemably dangerous when in reality, much of the difficulty of the work is due to exploitation and mismanagement.

During the 2021 fire season, Chris and his coworkers faced numerous problems with living conditions and the quality of food. Like many firefighters, they had to find housing themselves in rural areas where housing is expensive and scarce. While working on a fire in central Oregon, workers only received a cold Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich and a small pack of cereal in the morning and a sack lunch to subsist on for the rest of the 14-hour shift.

Often, the sack lunches were packed several days before workers received them, and supervisors broadcast reminders over the tactical radios to check for expired food. Lack of adequate food is demoralizing and a significant safety problem, contributing to fatigue under dangerous conditions. After working in such demeaning and dangerous conditions, many firefighters have very little patience for empty, flowery thanks for their ‘service.’

While veterans do receive some preference when in the hiring process with the federal government, Chris questions whether that preference is worth being “co-opted into an imperial war machine,” which aids the US ruling class’s oppression of people around the world, only to return home where many veterans face issues with alcoholism, PTSD, suicide, and homelessness.

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