Senators call for creation of wildland firefighter job series and an increase in firefighters’ pay

In August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled

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Firefighter on the Myrtle Fire
Firefighter on the Myrtle Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, July 22, 2012.

The way the federal government manages wildland firefighters made a small step recently toward gaining enough attention that their issues might be acted upon somewhere down the road. In addition to the legislation that has been introduced this year to establish a wildland firefighter job series and pay them a living wage, two senators wrote a letter to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior asking for those issues to be addressed, and also to waive the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel and convert seasonal firefighters to permanent.

The letter pointed out that in August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled. In a record-setting year for fires in California and Colorado, having about six percent of the jobs vacant is a problem. Is is also an indication that retention is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The letter was written by the two senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Talking about improving the firefighter program does not accomplish anything, alone. Writing a letter to the Secretaries is a slightly stronger step, as is introducing legislation. PASSING meaningful legislation to make these improvements is what needs to be done, if the executive branch of government can’t or won’t do it on their own.

Below is the full text of the letter written by the senators:


October 19, 2020

The Honorable Sonny Perdue                         The Honorable David Bernhardt

Secretary of Agriculture                                 Secretary of the Interior

1400 Independence Avenue, SW                   1849 C Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20250                                Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Perdue and Secretary Bernhardt:

As California and the West contend with yet another historic and destructive wildfire season, it has become clear that we are entering a “new normal” in which increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc during a nearly year-round fire season. So far this year, California has had over 8,600 wildfires, which have burned a record-setting 4.1 million acres, killed 31 people, and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and structures. Given the increasing demands placed on firefighters and the fact that the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California, federal firefighting agencies must adapt to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need. To that end, we write with three requests:

1.  In conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, please review and consider increasing the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for all wildland firefighters employed by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. As a part of this effort, we urge you to consider creating a new, separate job series and GS pay scale for federal wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with other firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.

The Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service has informed us that “hiring and retention is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high cost of living, increasing minimum wage and the significant discrepancy in salary compensation compared to other wildland fire organizations in [California].” For example, the annual base salary for an entry-level Cal Fire firefighter is $58,000; whereas the base salary for an entry-level Forest Service firefighter stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area is just $33,912. The Pacific Southwest Region has further informed us that as a direct result of low, non-competitive pay, nearly 600 Forest Service firefighter positions (seasonal and permanent) were unfilled as of August—a time when California’s fire activity increased substantially. Federal firefighters are specialized workers who face great risk to protect our families, homes, businesses and natural resources. Their salaries must reflect that, and we simply cannot afford to have so many firefighter positions unfilled.

2.  Please examine and consider waiving the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel who exceed the GS pay ceiling while working overtime on wildfire emergencies. If Congressional action is necessary to waive these restrictions, please indicate so.

It is our understanding that some federal firefighters are working so many extra hours that they will soon reach the annual pay cap for GS employees and become ineligible for overtime compensation. Being asked to work for no pay places an unfair expectation on federal firefighters. It also serves as a dangerous disincentive for personnel to respond to fires, especially later in the season when conditions are often most dangerous in California. Given that states face different peaks in their fire seasons, we must ensure that federal firefighters remain available later in the year when California’s wildfires are often at their worst.

3.  Please consider reclassifying seasonal federal firefighter positions as permanent, and let us know what additional resources or authorities you might need from Congress to do so.

It has become increasingly clear that wildfires in the West are no longer a seasonal phenomenon and that we can, therefore, no longer afford to have a seasonal firefighting workforce.  Transitioning to a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions depending on wildfire activity, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process.

Some of California’s largest active wildfires—including the biggest in State history, which has now exceeded 1 million acres—are burning on federal land. While we are grateful that Cal Fire, local agencies, and other states and countries have sent crews to help fight wildfires on federal lands, the federal government must address the long-term issues with our federal firefighting workforce. Making salaries competitive enough to fill positions and retain personnel, addressing overtime caps, and transitioning seasonal roles to permanent posts are critical first steps. We urge you to address them as soon as possible, and we stand ready to help.

Sincerely,

(end of letter)


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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.

11 thoughts on “Senators call for creation of wildland firefighter job series and an increase in firefighters’ pay”

  1. Have you been on a fire with a prison crew? Not really equivalent to me. And there is a moral argument to be made against incarcerating people so they can work for pennies.

    What about prison crew Hotshots, Smokejumpers and rappelers? This is not a solution

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    1. Right on man. Let’s focus on the young men and women that are already “forestry techs” and forget trying to fix the problem with inmates and convicts. How does anyone justify the continued abuse of great firefighters by bypassing our own for former inmates? Sorry, but agency trained and hired employees are superior to any other sources.

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      1. agree. Stop hiring or using inmates to take the jobs from free people. Entry level fire jobs are highly competitive and are often the only portal to a career in the fire service. No preference or job credits to criminals should be considered.

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  2. Good idea, but the US Forest Service is has been underfunded since its creation.
    Another idea is one I saw recently, regarding the use of prison inmates as firefighters, and that some come out of prison with both experience and a desire to do the job, but aren’t permitted to, because of their prison record. Seems that is something that could be fixed!

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    1. I think that California at the state level did something about that this summer, didn’t they? I think that there might have been an article on this site about it.

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    2. This is completely off topic, and would in no way address the solution(s) presented in this letter, nor needed at hand. Prisoners have to be trained just like all other firefighters to assist “Forestry Techs” on wildfires, and their pay is pennies on the dollar for the assistance they provide.

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      1. Include Seasonal time buyback to retain and recruit a workforce. It’s been 31 years (1989) since that opportunity was allowed. Every year there is proposed legislation that never goes anywhere.

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    3. Inmate firefighters are well trained by cal fire and should be allowed to use their expertise and experience gained while incarcerated. It would give them a sense of giving back and being productive members in the community. Both men and women inmates firefighters should have the opportunity. Also providing drug and alcohol counseling once a week will be beneficial to retaining and keeping them on the right track.

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    4. Inmates leaving prison who have experience in wildland fire are not restricted from doing this job once released. The Dept. of Agriculture and Interior both hire convicted felons as wildland firefighters. The circumstances you are taking about is where convicted felons are not allowed or restricted from working as structural firefighters or for Cal-fire. Both of which require EMT and/or paramedic training which is where the problem is. These jobs require people to work around heavily regulated drugs and medications along with having access to people’s homes and families. Of course that’s not to say that every felon will abuse this system is allowed but there is a reason why those restrictions on certain felons is in place. On top of that these jobs are very competitive and have large application pools of highly qualified individuals without criminal records. I believe felons should be given the opportunity to work and improve themselves upon finishing their sentences but this story about how ex-felons are not allowed to be wildland firefighters is just not true.

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      1. Thank You Michael D., you are 100% correct on inmates being hired by the Federal Wildland Agencies. I have worked for the BLM and US Forest Service and we have hired a lot of ex inmates. The article needs to address that Cal Fire and Structural Fire Departments cannot hire ex inmates; and the public needs to know that as well.

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