Pending legislation related to wildland fire

We endorse the bill to establish a federal wildland firefighter occupational series and a significant boost in their pay

U.S. Capitol building

In a typical Congressional session only three to five percent of bills that are introduced are actually passed and become law. In this two-year session which is drawing to a close so far only one percent have reached that status. So we don’t get too excited when a bill is introduced that looks like it would be beneficial to wildland fire or land management.

Having said that, there are at least four pending pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the last few months that could be of interest to wildland firefighters.

Wildland Fire Mitigation & Management Commission Act of 2020
Senator Mitt Romney announced the bill October 15 and it has not yet been introduced. As described by the Senator in a press release, it would establish a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders — including city and county level representation — to study and recommend fire mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.

The Commission would be jointly managed by the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Administrator of FEMA, and comprised of 25 members: 8 federal and 17 non-federal members.

It would develop two reports which would be presented to Congress:

  1. Recommendations to Mitigate and Manage Fires
  2. Firefighting Aircraft and Aircraft Parts Inventory Assessment

The fact that the Commission would not be dominated by or reporting to the U.S. Forest Service makes it an interesting concept.

National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 –  S.4625
Introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon September 17, 2020, it has two co-sponsors and has not been referred to committee. I could not find a House version. It seeks to expand the use of prescribed fire on federal land. Up to $300 million would be appropriated each year beginning in FY 2022 based on requests from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.

The funds could be used to carry out prescribed fire projects, hire additional personnel and procure equipment “including unmanned aerial systems equipped with an aerial ignition systems to implement a greater number of prescribed fires.” Also, to provide training, reseeding, and monitoring for fire effects.

It would authorize assistance to states and local governments:

“(A) to provide federally sponsored insurance administered by States, in conjunction with State- sponsored training and certification programs, for private persons implementing prescribed fires;
(B) to establish a training or certification program for teams comprised of citizens or local fire services to conduct prescribed fires on private land, consistent with any standards developed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group or State prescribed fire standards;
(C) to enable additional fire managers and apparatus, whether provided by the local resources of an agency, private contractors, nongovernmental organizations, Indian Tribes, local fire services, or qualified individuals, to be present while implementing a prescribed fire”

The bill requires the Agriculture and Interior departments to carry out prescribed fires each year on 1,000,000 to 20,000,000 acres. It also requires, subject to the availability of appropriations, not later than September 30, 2022, the Secretaries shall each have carried out a minimum of 1 prescribed fire on each unit of the National Forest System, unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, unit of the National Park System, and Bureau of Land Management district if the unit is at least 100 acres (with some exceptions).

It requires the hiring of additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires, authorizes noncompetitive conversions of seasonal firefighters to permanent, employment of formerly incarcerated individuals, establishment of training centers for prescribed fire, “managed-wildfire”, and a virtual prescribed fire training center.

The bill would establish by law that except in the case of gross negligence, a Federal employee planning or overseeing a prescribed fire that escaped– (1) shall not be subject to criminal prosecution; and (2) shall not be subject to civil proceedings, except in accordance with section 2672 of title 28, United States Code. It would also provide up to $1,000,000 to meet with state officials to discuss liability protection for state certified prescribed fire managers.

Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020S.4431 and H.R.7978
The Senate version was introduced September 16, 2020 by Senator Dianne Feinstein and has four co-sponsors. The House bill was introduced August 7, 2020 by Rep. Jimmy Panett and has nine co-sponsors. The Senate bill has only been introduced, while the House version has at least made it to committee.

It would require the USDA, in consultation with the Department of the Interior, to initiate three “forest landscape projects”, the definition of which is not more than 75,000 acres. The objectives would be to reduce the risk of wildfire, restore ecological health, and adapt the landscape to the increased risk of wildfire due to climate change.

The bill excludes certain forest management activities from environmental review requirements.

It authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to declare that an “emergency situation” exists, which would then allow:

“(A) the salvage of dead or dying trees;
(B) the harvest of trees damaged by wind or ice;
(C) the commercial and noncommercial sanitation harvest of trees to control insects or disease, including trees already infested with insects or disease;
(D) the reforestation or replanting of fire- impacted areas through planting, control of competing vegetation, or other activities that enhance natural regeneration and restore forest species”

Wildland Firefighter Recognition ActS.1682 and H.R.8170
Introduced in the House September 4, 2020 by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, and in the Senate May 23, 2020 by Senator Steve Daines. The Senate bill has gone nowhere, and the House version is in committee.

This bill requires the Office of Personnel Management to develop a distinct wildland firefighter occupational series. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture must use the series in the advertising and hiring of a wildland firefighter.

The bill requires an employee in a wildland firefighter occupational series to receive a pay differential based on the unusual physical hardship or hazardous nature of the position.

An individual employed as a wildland firefighter on the date on which the occupational series takes effect may (1) remain in the occupational series in which the individual is working, or (2) be included in the wildland firefighter occupational series.

Wildfire Today strongly endorses S.1682 and H.R.8170 and the establishment of the wildland firefighter occupational series with a significant boost in their pay. These jobs are one of the most hazardous, and require a level of knowledge and skill that can take a decade or more to acquire and develop. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, special forces, some of whom work well over 100 hours a week with only a few days off each month, traveling around the country separated from their families missing birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games. Recognizing them and paying what they deserve, could improve retention which could enhance the overall quality of the workforce.

If you have an opinion about these pieces of legislation, contact your elected officials. If you support the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, feel free to borrow some of the words in the previous paragraph when you contact your legislators.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

31 thoughts on “Pending legislation related to wildland fire”

  1. Sorry Bill, this has some politics in it.

    I hope everyone supporting these bills has excellent lung capacity.
    If Washington is as bad as Ottawa, these bills will be used to commission a study to recommend more study. Then the government of the day will change, all proposed bills will be dropped, then re-written to propose…. you guessed it – more study.

    Wildfire management professionals have been saying the same things to bureaucrats, politicians, and the general public for decades (see prescribed fire). Unfortunately we get glacially slow decision making to support natural events that are fast moving and happen EVERY year.

    I wish for the best, but expect very little. Here in Alberta a bunch of permanent fire positions were cut due to budget issues with more to follow next year. Given the current economic climate in this province we can expect pay cuts as well.
    The government of the day….

  2. I started in 1997 as a forestry technician, Climbing/Backcountry ranger. There I checked permits, opened trails, cleaned toilets and got my red card where I served as militia on engines and put together hand crews. I was a true forestry technician, assisting all functions. It was a good life with very low pay and I struggled in the winter to survive on unemployment, odd jobs in the woods and town, and whatever I could find. I quickly realized if I wanted a living wage beyond the back of my truck I needed to move into fire where I could find a permanent position and more overtime.
    Fast forward 24 seasons and I’ve been on four hotshot crews in two different regions, having the privilege to serve as a superintendent for a few years before I moved into an FMO job. There is no doubt this issue of federal pay is much larger than firefighters or trail workers or rec techs. However there is a vast distinction between the necessity for highly skilled firefighters, trained to perform the most arduous tasks, in the most inhospitable locations from high country mountains to WUI neighborhoods in California suburbs and the skills required to perform basic forestry technician duties. I cut my teeth on the end of a 44 in 2000 and I saw the failed tactics, surprised looks on old timers, and the recognition that we were facing a new reality from poor forest management to warming surface temperatures. These moments came in more than one small “safety” zone.
    We are facing a momentous time when wildland fires aren’t being manned by the put together timber crews or militia anymore and 10,000 acre fire is a standard small fire. We require new technologies and new ways of organizing our fire efforts that don’t result in suicide, burnout, or broken down and forgotten firefighters. The current model was born out of the late 60s and 70s and has stood the test of time until now. We need firefighters who can be 100% focused on suppression, training, emergency medicine and incident management without the burden of fuels management, helping districts with range improvements, or the million other asks from the FS because we are the workforce. We need a true accounting for fuels work that doesn’t bleed from preparedness funds and fully staffed fuels organizations that can meet the new challenge. We need fully staffed IMTs (Not NIMO) that can manage incidents and that is their full time job, not a collateral duty. Our teams in the SW are still going strong and I guarantee you their home life, home job are suffering because we haven’t planned for these type of seasons.
    We are headed for a train wreck in retention for permanent and seasonal positions as I’ve seen GS4 certs shrink from 400 to barely a 100. We need incentives for fire qualifications, remote duty locations (before they die all together), and a living wage that at least keeps pace with inflation. We need a Wildland Firefighter Occupational series that acknowledges reality and is not stuck in a 1985 model of fire suppression. We need a National Fire Service that takes the petty political battles away from land management agencies and truly funds a firefighting group ready to take on the challenges of the next century, not stuck in the nostalgic past.

  3. I would like it if me and my buddies got paid more and had more time off, but I worry that creating an administrative distinction between wildland firefighters and forestry technicians will privilege suppression at the expense of prevention and prescribed fire with ultimately negative long-term consequences for ecosystem health. Not to mention make it harder to develop skilled wildland firefighters–if suppression becomes the mission, what happens to the thinning projects and rx burns where guys learn how to cut or burn?

    1. Maybe a fire crew could hire from a burn crew? Like they used to do in the 80s and 90s.

      I’m a FS employees and don’t do much technicianing or land managing. There needs to be a national Fire Service that manages incidents.

      My opinion

      1. >Maybe a fire crew could hire from a burn crew?

        Yeah, I think that’s a great idea, especially if we formalized it as a pipeline–you know, rather than everything being word-of-mouth and hiring officials looking at the sports background of prospective hires and stuff like that, everybody knows and accepts that you do a season or two in prescribed fire learning the ropes before you move on to suppression.

        The trouble is, at least in my geographical area, there really aren’t dedicated FS burn crews; project work is mostly contracted out, handled by the Cs and prison crews, or just not done. This is a troubling state of affairs to begin with and I worry that a push for firefighter classification will ultimately make it worse. It’s great that we’re trying to make things better for firefighters, but I think we need to make things better for the rx burn/thinning/TSI guys too (and for that matter trails and rec as well), the first step being to have positions in those areas at all.

  4. Okay Old Smoke Jumper, I am going to jump up on my soap box now and then I will be done, I started in 79 and yes you are correct I did not know what the heck i got myself into, 100% para military to the core, yep times change and sometime for the better, one thing is certain by season 2 and 3 I knew exactly what I signed up for, I hated my job until that moment i did not, I spent 38 years as a fed and recently retired, and it was truly an amazing career, there were low points to be sure, (I raised our family on my salary, Not Easy) I spent a big part of my career on shot crews the highlight came when I had my own crew, well not really mine but you get it. I still hold to the fact that it is a choice one has to make, I made mine, I could have traded it all for much more money but I would have been miserable, I saw a great many of my folks go elsewhere now they are Chiefs and Captains making great money and more than likely very happy. It’s a choice we all have to make, the USFS is not the same as it was back in the day, it’s better, I remember when Engine Forman’s were GS-6, things are better, Beit not perfect just better, much better. For a time I thought we had a real shot of portal to portal pay… For a long time we all hoped for better pay and in a way we got it with higher GS for a great many positions. Lastly I am a retired FF and nothing else, and I am very proud of the NPS and USFS, there are none better on the planet NONE.
    I hope you one day realize all that you ask for and seek because you do truly deserve it as all of you do, while you wait do not get your hopes up to high but keep on keeping on, someone has to carry the torch, I am done now, sorry for the rant…..Peace……………..

    1. Agree, similar situation. No one is saying you don’t deserve what you’re asking for, just don’t expect the FS to change it’s mission and responsibilities. I too was a Firefighter (still am) but my job title described so much more, and I am proud of that. Keep battling, I hope you all get what you deserve.

      1. Currently our job title describes wagss that have lowered quite a bit in real terms in the last decade.

        Our job title describes people who crowd fund to get support for on-the-job injuries.

        Our job title describes people who are taking incredible risks as temporary employees without benefits.

        Our Job title describes way above normal levels of suicide, divorce, depression, alcoholism.

        Our job title describes an employer that doesn’t care about retention rates

        Our job title describes people who keep getting asked to do more with less.

        And the system is breaking. The train wreck is coming and all I hear from old retirees is that it was fine for them.

        Yeah well things were a lot better in the 50s – 70s when you could have a single factory worker support a whole family… So things have changed. Time to wake up and help us out.

  5. The one area most upsetting to me, a parent of a wildland firefighter is they get laid off and dropped from insurance every year. My son says his lungs heal over the winter when laid off, that is not fair.

  6. I’m sick and tired of the mental gymnastics people are doing to justify keeping the job title as forestry technician instead of firefighter. Just because we perform other duties, such as controlled burns (uhhhh. still fire!), hazardous tree falling projects, hazardous tree climbing projects, hazardous parachute proficiency jumps, rappels, etc… does not mean that we do not deserve to be called wildland firefighters.

    If we held the same standard to municipal departments it wouldn’t even be close. What percentage of calls they respond to are medical? 95%? When they aren’t on a call they are in station cleaning up, working out, cooking or watching TV. Do we stop calling them firefighters? Do we drop them down to EMT pay? Are they Janitorial pay until they go on a fire call and then get hazard pay? No? Then stop with the mental gymnastics used to try and hold us down and abuse a workforce.

    What a joke! If you worked 40 years ago and think that nothing has changed and you did OK, well maybe that’s because housing was cheap and the wage in real terms was actually higher. People used to get paid 56 hours straight on shift in the 80’s. Well those days are gone.

    EVERYTHING is expensive now. People don’t have a wage that pays a mortgage. People are fighting much more fire, and the fires are more intense. People are suffering from PTSD and mental health problems.

    Calling us Wildland Firefighters and paying a living wage is a start. If you are comfortably retired and think the young people are just complaining about nothing then I would suggest you take a closer look at what is going on with the workforce. Things are not even close to what they were 20 years ago, hell not even 10 years ago. The average forestry technician has taken such a massive drop in compensation, both wages and benefits.

    So just stop with the mental gymnastics. We are firefighters every bit as much as municipal, or state firefighters. Seemingly more so. We need your help and we are asking people to get on board and help our workforce. The humans that go out there and put it all on the line to do a job well.

  7. I worked for the FS for 25 fire seasons and left just 6 months ago. There were many reasons but im going to keep this short.
    The folks who currently work and the future fs workers need our help. Its unacceptable just to say, well people know what they signed up for. I heard it over and over. They give everything they have. They do everything they can to keep their heads above water and its a struggle. Many are drowning in physical and mental pain. Divorce and kids they never see. Then they see their work brothers and sisters suffering and sometimes dying. Never being able to afford even a cheap vacation to clear theirs heads.
    They are firefighters and they need our help. These decades of the same conversations with no movement is BS.

    Its time for everyone to speak up and fight for this.
    When i left the agency and saw how the real world treats employees and compensates them i was blown away. Its ridiculous what FS employees go through and have to deal with.
    The doors are wide open and people are leaving at high rates at all levels. Pay people for their hard work. Call them what they are. Get them the right help when they need it.
    Its sad to say after leaving the career I loved that I feel the best I ever have. Mental and physically I cant remember ever feeling this good as an adult. Finacially to not worry about tomorrow or next week but actually plan big picture and be able to support my family.
    I truly hope others can find something similar before its to late. We only live once.

    Let’s help these men and women. They are wore out and im sure this fire season has a few more terrible surprises for us.

  8. I started with the outfit in 1971, it was not so much of an issue then. Largely I’m sure, due to the fact that “Fire Season” (at least in SoCal), was not a year round operation as it has become. Neither, were the needed technical skills that come with advancement of equipment/Communications/Public and “Management” expectations in the current time.
    Through the years, even when I retired in 2006, it became more than obvious that the Feds need to make this a far more specialized OPM Series, rather than the catch-all of 462 Forestry Tech.
    LEI in the USFS enjoys the AUO (Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime) benefit, which is factored into their retirement. In my case, for example, it amounted to a 25% increase (calculated at the overtime rate), to my retirement. Why could there not be a similar calculation, say overtime/Hazard pay calculation for a new Fire Series. I beat my brains out for many years on Hotshot crews/Engines/helicopters, and I am here to say that this is a gross mistreatment of the Federal Firefighters. It needs to change. Currently, the Fed agencies are nothing more than a training ground for all the other Departments nation-wide, that are happy to hire away our employees who are not paid a wage commensurate with the duties/risks/stress we put on our people. Did this article hit a nerve with me? you’re damned right it did.

  9. Look I agree with the better pay and support. A LOT of folks left the FS when I was coming up, but I enjoyed the work, thinning, cutting fuel breaks, mending fences, station maintenance, participating in the Rx process,etc. I didn’t settle for anything
    It was a good career. Pay has always been an issue, so focus on that and more support from the organization. When recruiting, do better at describing the job and explaining the job description. Recruiting has always been a challenge. Keeping people has always been a chalkenge. I just don’t think the work part is the issue. Actually fighting fire is such a small part of the job for many Forestry Technicians. Don’t take away all the other good work they do for the organization.

  10. One can only hope and pray that this much needed change will occur concerning pay and classification, this has been a topic for decades with little to zero progress, it’s the can that has been kicked inside and out. We tried with the wildland fire association to no avail. I for the most part agree with the comments made by Jeff, you know what you are signing up for, however I also feel that you should endeavor to make it better if you can, most wildland FF just get by even with a 1000+ hr OT season, there is something wrong with that, there is severe pay disparity in the wildland fire service, try living in So Cal and work for the USFS, it’s almost impossible, I had to leave to have a decent standard of living for my family and I am glad I did.
    I 100% support better pay, a lot better, it’s well past time that something is done, I have seen this before only to see it die on the vine, it’s a hot topic while it’s fresh in law makers minds the recent devastation to communities in the west, but it will fade quickly, let’s hope is does not and something is done……..They deserve better, much better…..

    1. Old DRHS,

      I would argue many of these people signing up for forestry technician jobs don’t know what they are signing up for. You can pretend everyone is a robot and makes perfect decisions, but most humans couldn’t see the explosion in the Cost Of Living over the last 10 years. Most people couldn’t see the wage freezes under the Obama Administration. Most people couldn’t see the COLA of 1%, which is a reduction of wage in real terms.

      Most people don’t think 10-15 years about how this will affect their relationships with friends and families. Most people don’t see they will be affected by PTSD after numerous close calls and friends deaths.

      Most people didnt see thousand hour OT years as a requirement to pay bills. Most people didn’t see the 1,560-hour temporary employee without benefits…

      Most people don’t see that their job would shift to firefighting entirely. Which is why we need change. We need help.

      Shrugging it off as every employees I dividual fault is not helpful. And if every single forestry technician left for structure fire departments then what? Someone has to do the job.

      Do you ever wonder why they didn’t need all the city fire department resources for wildfires? Things have changed. Fires have changed. The workforce has changed. Our country has changed. It’s time for our leaders to recognize that change has happened and to plan for more change in the future.

  11. More pay, and more funding for training ,would be a Good thing .
    Mandatory prescribed burns of up to 20 Million acres, in one of the other bills is probably a very bad idea .

  12. First of all, you have some good points. However, I spent over 40 years with the Forest Service as a Forestry Technician. I new when I applied I was going to be a Forestry Technician, with all of the various jobs I was going to be doing, primarily in fire management. Yes the job is hazardous, so be rid of hazard pay and include it in the hourly rate. When on a fire assignment, automatically get paid for 16 hours. Most people do it anyway. The mental health part is good also. Otherwise, everyone has a choice, to apply or stay as a Forestry Technician, or apply to be a Firefighter on a fire department. When I started, Fire Departments weren’t sending engines and overhead to fires like they are now, so there are more opportunities to work in the various functions if you want to. It’s your choice. I just don’t think you should focus on changing the job description of the Forestry Technician, when a lot of other good work is being accomplished.

    1. The other thing Jeff, you’re totally right. People do have a choice. And they’re walking out the door to better paying jobs.

    2. “Most people are getting 16s” – Unfortunately I don’t think that’s true anymore. One of the biggest hurdles to compensation is ourselves…or finance…or the team. Why when we are spending 100 million on a fire that we are trying to get people to put 14.5 hour days on CTRs? That is insanity. If people are on a fire, not in a hotel, away from their home during or pandemic or in a normal year 16s should be the standard.

  13. The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters have a policy proposal that would solve these issues.

    Also, I did ask for six, specific reforms here:

    We are growing and we are in touch from the ground-pounding forestry technician up to policy makers in Washington. We are waiting for you to join us and get behind our proposal to make fire and forest management start to work for employees and citizens. The current policy works for neither as we are witnessing now with fires raging through October and the devastating till it has taken on our communities.


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