As fire season begins, some of the most elite wildland firefighters are not going to be out on the front lines this year. They're choosing to retire or change jobs instead.
Hotshot firefighters say they're risking their lives for a starting wage lower than what many high schoolers earn at a fast food restaurant.
"I think often times there's maybe an inferiority bias, or at least sometimes it feels like that," former United States Forest Service hotshot firefighter Donovan Lee said.
Lee was among the elite, working for the Forest Service for more than two decades as a wildland firefighter.
Now in the private sector, he's worried many like him are following his lead, walking away due to low wages and a lack of benefits.
Starting pay for a hotshot team member is $13.45 an hour.
"And now the Forest Service is competing with unemployment, because you make more on unemployment than you would as an entry-level firefighter," Lee said.
The federal firefighters are often working side-by-side with crews from Cal Fire and other agencies who often make double what they do.
"They really have to really think about what’s the best for them and their families," Grassroots Wildland Firefighters President Kelly Martin said.
Martin worked as a firefighter for 35 years – her last 14 years as the chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park. Now she's president of a nonprofit fighting for better pay and safer working conditions for federal firefighters across the country.
"To me, it’s a real loss to the taxpayers and to the American public when we lose these highly qualified federal wildland firefighters to other agencies," Martin said.
A spokesman for the Forest Service said California has a goal of 44 hotshot crews, but right now only 31 are fully staffed.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters said 20% of the Forest Service's permanent firefighter positions are currently vacant. The groups wants pay parity and retirement benefits for all firefighters, and they've drawn up a bill that would immediately give all firefighters a 50% pay raise and set the starting wage for hotshots at $20 an hour.
"That would be a huge start, $20 dollars an hour," Lee said. "I mean, you could at least start patching up a hole."
The Forest Service said it's also working with United States Department of Agriculture leaders and elected officials on pay and benefit plans, and that if there are staffing issues, it can draw on other agencies for resources to respond to fires in California when needed.