These are the hotshot firefighters leading attacks against California wildfires. And they're quitting
Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT) June 26, 2021
The fire tornado, which obliterated entire neighborhoods in Redding, California, during the massive Carr Fire, still haunts former hotshot supervisor Aaron Humphrey. He says that terrifying moment forever changed his outlook.
"You are in a fog and expecting death or disaster around every corner ... It collectively killed my hotshot spirit," Humphrey, 44, said of the fire tornado.
"Hump," as fellow firefighters and friends call him, supervised hotshot crews from the US Forest Service on blister-inducing hikes to dig out fire lines, hack down trees and set blazes to fight advancing flames. Hotshot crews of 20 to 22 people spearhead fire attacks, and it's not uncommon for them to hike 10 miles daily with fire gear packs that can weigh up to 45 pounds.
Hump rose up from a seasonal rookie firefighter to the prestigious position of supervisor of the Eldorado Hotshots. He called it the "best job in the world."
But he quit a year ago.
After 25 years, Hump says he became just the latest mentally fried, underpaid hotshot veteran to leave, at a time when California wildfires are at their worst.
Hotshots are leaving for better pay
The pay discrepancy between federal hotshots, most of whom are employed by the US Forest Service, and firefighters for other jurisdictions is staggering.
First-year federal hotshots make $13.50 an hour, according to David Alicea, vice president of the Forest Service Union in California.
"Yes, you can make overtime, but we're putting them through the meat grinder," Alicea told CNN. "We're abusing them because we are short-staffed, and they are not getting their rest periods. They get laid off when fire season is over, and they choose not to come back."
These usually young, seasonal firefighters are some of the ones who are leaving. But all levels of firefighters are moving on, including top managers who have the most experience.
"We have experienced staffing challenges as a result of issues such as compensation, remote and hard-to-fill duty stations, a competitive employment market, and the physical and mental stress of year-round fire conditions on fire personnel," Regina Corbin, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service, told CNN via email.
Corbin said that Region 5, which includes California, is converting temporary seasonal positions to permanent full-time posts to improve recruitment and retention.
She says the problems are not new and apply to other federal firefighters.