KINSTON, N.C. (WNCT) — Members of the North Carolina Forest Service said they have been spread thin battling wildfires throughout the state.
The most recent fires, the Last Resort fire in Tyrrell County and the Great Lakes fire in Craven County, have kept crews very busy over the past few months. They said all the meanwhile, they have been battling staffing issues.
Statistics from the department show staffing issues such as high vacancies and turnover rates. Officials said the department is only operating at 80% personnel right now.
“It becomes an issue with us and our ability to respond to natural disasters and our emergency response for wildfires. For example, we have some employees that could be working upwards of 40-45 straight days with no time off,” said Regional Forester, Tommy Sports.
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With just the two recent wildfires in Eastern North Carolina, the department has accumulated 13,000 hours of overtime.
“You spend days and weeks on end at these wildfires working overtime and working weekends and it’s not reflected in the paycheck, other jobs you get overtime, so you get a bonus and that doesn’t really happen here,” NC Forest Services Public Information Officer Philip Jackson said.
Overtime at the department results in additional days off, but Sports and Jackson note, they can’t really use that time because they are on call 24/7 and required to respond. They said if vacant jobs were filled, overtime wouldn’t be such an issue, but that is not happening.
“Our new hires of what we’re able to bring on board simply aren’t matching our turnover rate we’re presently experiencing,” said Sports.
Forest Service officials said it takes about 130 days to train a new hire and is also a very expensive process. Out of those new hires, only one-third make it out of training.
Jonathan Pearson is the assistant regional forester for the Coastal Division. He is usually tasked with training new personnel.
“You’re happy to train them but when they leave, there’s a lot of work that goes into it that’s wasted,” said Pearson.
Jackson suspects the main reason the department’s turnover rate is so high is that the workload does not match the compensation. After exhausting funds and efforts training new hires, Jackson and Pearson have seen the departures.
The department is now calling on legislators to allocate more funds to make sure their workers get compensated accordingly.