Year of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism
Department or School/College
School of Journalism
wildfire, firefighters, south lake tahoe, American West, federal employees, equal pay
University of Montana
Radio | Technical and Professional Writing
The American West sits at a dangerous position in the age of climate change. Wildfires burn hotter, longer, and cover more area than ever measured. Decreased snowpack, early spring run-off, a glut of built-up timber in parks and public lands, and longer droughts all build upon one another, and it just takes one spark to start a raging wildfire that devastates a community. As such, a firefighting force is needed to deal with this changing landscape.
However, that force is dwindling, especially at the federal level. A reported 20% of wildland firefighting positions are vacant, and the Bureau of Land Management is hoping to double their permanent positions by next year. Recruitment and retention are falling flat, with many federal firefighters reporting a ‘revolving-door’ of coworkers. Pay is not sufficient to support the lifestyle necessary for seasonal work, depression and suicidal thoughts are 32 times more common than the average person, and housing is flimsy or nonexistent. People are flocking to state and municipal work, and the federal government is in need of a way to retain their force.
In the state and municipal world, fire seasons are leading to tough decisions and big changes. The recent Caldor Fire in California (and a sliver of Nevada) was the second fire to ever cross the Sierra Nevada, and the second most destructive fire of 2021. It also nearly torched the tourist town of South Lake Tahoe, but for a combination of quick action and a miracle of nature.
Together, the combination of worsening fire seasons, the poor conditions of the work, and the inconsistency of benefits is brewing a storm for the future. The goal of my Master’s Portfolio is to raise awareness about the shocking treatment of federal firefighters and effectively communicate the pressing danger of wildfires in the face of climate change. This reporting showcases the human side of those who combat these threats to communities and wildlife, and the duality of the modern firefighter. There are days of triumph and days of hardship. My hope is to reflect those conflicting emotions within my reporting.
Sisson, Mak, "Facing the Fire - Challenges and Triumphs of Western Firefighters in a Changing Climate" (2022). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 11929.
© Copyright 2022 Mak Sisson