Government Shutdown Adversely Affects Workers Fighting Wildfires
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
People affected by the partial government shutdown include Americans fighting wildfires, and Scott Gorman is one of them. He's a fire superintendent with the U.S. Forest Service. He's known as a Hotshot. This is an elite firefighter with long experience who is given the most hazardous tasks. He works here in California, which just went through the worst year for fires in more than a decade. And since the shutdown began in December, Scott Gorman has done his job without being paid. He and his wife Sarah Barnes spoke to Steve Inskeep about their situation.
SCOTT GORMAN: We've been extremely busy. When the rain comes, that's usually when we get a break, but it has been nonstop.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What is the biggest or most challenging fire that you have personally been involved in fighting in the last few years?
GORMAN: One of my last fires I was on - it was the Delta Fire up in Redding. We initally attacked the Delta, drove down the 5 and immediately started just evacuating people off of the 5 freeway because all these people were going to be impacted. So that one sticks to me the most just because the people's faces and the sense of urgency to get these people out of there as quick as possible.
INSKEEP: What did you mean when you said the people's faces?
GORMAN: Just them being frightened, really entrusting you with the decisions that you're making for them - not having any answers, and you're there to deliver them.
INSKEEP: Sarah Barnes, what's it like for you when this guy says, OK, I'm going off for a few days or weeks to a burn zone; hope I see you again?
SARAH BARNES: Well, it's a relief 'cause we get tired of him if he's home too much. But...
INSKEEP: I didn't expect that to go there, but go on.
BARNES: I'm just kidding. So we've been together the whole time he's worked with the Forest Service, and it's just how our lives are. We have two kids. They're 10 and 14. And so when they were littler - you know, when I was holding a newborn and he left, those were times that were much more difficult in some ways. Now it's hard for other reasons. This past season was so intense. I don't even know if he was home a total of two weeks. Scott is a really good firefighter. I don't worry as much about that. It's other things. Rolling rocks scare me 'cause they just come out of nowhere.
BARNES: Lightning (laughter). He was struck by lightning when I was nine months pregnant with our first child. That was a fun story.
GORMAN: Yeah. 2004, struck by lightning.
BARNES: He was in a remote part of Arizona. So even if I would have been able to fly with my advanced pregnancy, then I would have had to somehow drive another several hours to get to where he was. So he's fine - no superpowers that we know of.
INSKEEP: Oh, that's too bad.
BARNES: Yeah, I know. We were hoping for something (laughter).
GORMAN: Well, that says a lot about why I like this job. What I witnessed was everybody doing what they had to do to perform and get me and a couple other people out of there to safety. I mean, we not only take care of our own. We treat everybody the same way. We basically stop what we're doing. We run into the face of danger to save people, and we do our damndest to save their homes and property and their animals and livestock. Yeah, it just doesn't end.
INSKEEP: Is this shutdown affecting your efforts to prepare for the next fire season?
GORMAN: It stops so many things. There are a lot of things that we're not out doing at this particular moment. We're not doing any prescribed burning. We're just...
GORMAN: We're not doing any training. We're basically just sitting and not doing anything to incur more debt. Our windows of opportunity are very small - very small.
INSKEEP: I want to drill down on this because the president of the United States around the time of the Camp Fire was very busy on Twitter repeatedly saying that forests in California are being mismanaged and that that was the reason for the fires. You are now telling me that the shutdown is causing forests not to be properly managed to prevent fires or to reduce the risk of fire.
GORMAN: Yeah. The shutdown has stopped everybody from doing what they need to be doing.
INSKEEP: Not to get into your personal finances, but what does a Hotshot firefighter tend to make when working for the U.S. Forest Service?
GORMAN: Well, it's going to vary. So an entry-level GS-4 is going to make just above minimum wage. And up to mine as a GS-9, the base hours, I'm making roughly 64,000.
INSKEEP: Sixty-four thousand dollars a year for a job where you need lots and lots of experience to earn that much, and you're risking your life.
GORMAN: Experience, qualifications, capabilities - a slide score.
INSKEEP: So what's it mean for your family of four to miss a paycheck?
GORMAN: A lot goes through my mind. It's taken me a lot to get to where I am now. And I've been providing for my family for that many years - contemplation, looking for another job, which I've already started doing, and then also just thinking how long this is going to go. Not knowing that, it's difficult for me to walk away from something that I've given my life to, basically.
INSKEEP: As a citizen, I suddenly felt really sad when you said you're already looking for another job.
BARNES: It makes...
GORMAN: Yeah, it makes me - it makes me sad, too. And I'm not the only one affected.
BARNES: Me, too. It's been a commitment that we both made and, by proxy, our kids have made. Anyone who does this kind of work really makes a lot of sacrifices to be able to do it. He's only about four years before he could be eligible for retirement. So, you know, it's pretty devastating for us.
INSKEEP: You got much money in the bank?
BARNES: We have not a lot. This last fire season was so intense. Scott made a fair amount of overtime. We were able to get our savings account up a little bit, but we are already seeing it dwindle down. We talked the other night about what our limit would be as far as how low will the savings get before he decides he's got to go find other work. And that's a hard conversation to have. I was joking with a co-worker that our kids love Top Ramen. So if it comes to where...
BARNES: ...We have to eat Top Ramen straight for a few months, everyone will think it's a great thing.
INSKEEP: Super cheap meal.
BARNES: Yeah (laughter).
GORMAN: Those are the adjustments.
INSKEEP: You were saying, Scott, that your fellow firefighters took care of you when you were struck by lightning. And that's part of what you love about the job - is people taking care of each other.
GORMAN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Is your government - is your country taking care of you now?
GORMAN: I'd like to say that I hope so. I hope so.
INSKEEP: Well, Sarah Barnes and Scott Gorman, thanks very much for taking the time to talk.
GORMAN: Thank you, Steve.
BARNES: You're welcome. Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON BANNENBERG'S "FOR STORMBOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.