Wildland firefighter organization seeks better pay and benefits

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters hopes to influence federal legislation

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Britania Mountain Fire Wyoming
Firefighters conduct a firing operation to remove the fuel along Palmer Canyon Road on the Britania Mountain Fire in Wyoming. Uploaded to InciWeb September 2, 2018.

Wildland firefighters have formed a non-profit 501(c)(4) organization to advocate for better pay, benefits, a National Fire Service, and their own job series within the federal government.

The IRS rules for a 501(c)(4) allow a “social welfare” non-profit group to spend their donated funds to lobby government in order to affect legislation, but they are not allowed to participate in political campaigns on behalf of a candidate for public office.

The name of the all-volunteer group is Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF). It was formed in 2019 by active and retired federal wildland firefighters (Forestry Technicians) and continued to grow after a series of articles were published beginning in August, 2020 that called attention to their plight on Wildfire Today, Vice News, and NBC.

Below are excerpts from a news release by the GRWFF.

Kelly Martin, the group’s President and former Fire and Aviation Chief for Yosemite National Park, describes the major issue at hand: “We are at a turning point in the climate change battle, and the demands on federal wildland firefighters at the frontline have become a year-round request. Firefighters are resigning their federal positions for jobs in state, municipal and private industry that provide pay and benefits commensurate with the risks”.

Grassroots Wildland FirefightersIn many places where the government asks firefighters to serve, both in cities and remote duty stations, pay falls woefully short of basic housing and cost of living requirements.

Government studies from the National Library of Medicine reveal that federal firefighters face a multitude of health risks, with an up to 30% increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a risk of lung cancer exceeding that of the general population by as much as 43%. The ever-increasing duration and intensity of fire seasons have also led to devastating mental health statistics, which show a 30 times higher suicide rate among firefighters in comparison to the general public.

GRWFF spokesperson Riva Duncan sums it up, “In short, the pay and benefits are not commensurate with the risk, and the risk has increased fire season after fire season. The 2021 fire season is here, and nothing has changed. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters aims to do what the boots on the ground have always done in the absence of a solution, we offer one. With the input of firefighters across the country, we’ve developed a legislative proposal that aims to stem the tide of federal firefighters leaving our ranks and to create pay and benefits parity with state, municipal and private firefighting organizations. We’re working with members of congress who prioritize environmental and first responder issues to fine-tune the language, and we hope to have a sponsor and introduction soon.”

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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.

23 thoughts on “Wildland firefighter organization seeks better pay and benefits”

  1. Absolutely and without question, better pay and benefits are need for this long term, here an now problem.

  2. Let’s not forget the contact fire fighters in this process.
    They need to be brought into the organization

  3. Oh yes…. I think that while we are at it we need to include anyone that has anything to do with fire. Don’t forget all the militia that help on fire too! Oh hey why don’t we just include all federal agencies for the pay raise and extra/ better benefits. They also feel under appreciated and under valued. Just read the results from the “employee” surveys that are put out there.
    Bah.. I am sick of this entitled attitude. I’m done… Go get these crazy changes and turn the nation into a CAL fire, and we’ll see how well that turns out for the country as a whole. I agree with and some of the issues and concerns that the Grass Roots have posted on their web page, but the attitude that it can all be fixed by more pay, more benefits, an official title/classification of Wildland Firefighter is beyond crazy to me. Lets just say you get all that… then what it all goes away. No… I tell you the same problems will be there. A new generation will be cussing you because you didn’t go far enough, they will want more while claiming the same problems that what you said would be fixed with more money and benefits. In the end all you will do is usher in a whole new breed of Wildland Firefighters that probably wont even want to go to a fire. Why should they, they might actually have to work, when they can get paid just sitting in their nice stations. No, I believe we can make changes, but this is not the way to fix the problems we are facing. In the end it will just make things worse by increasing the entitlement attitude that is so detrimental to not only wildland firefighting, but to us as individuals.

  4. It’s an debate that has been going on since my first season in fire (’97), and will likely be an issue after I retire. The main problem(s) are that A) there’s an almost inexhaustible pool of applicants for jobs up to the GS-5 level, so there’s zero incentive for the Agencies to change their overall perspective on pay and benefits. Similarly, if you’ve invested a decade plus in a career, you’re between a rock and a hard place because you’re in a position where you’ve invested time, energy and sweat equity. Where else are you going to go in your 40’s or 50’s? It’s not an easy reset, and the Agencies know this, so again there’s little motivation for them to evolve; B) it takes a literal act of Congress to change the system. It’s ridiculous that as a GS-8/4 I HAVE TO to work a minimum of 500 hours just to meet the basic cost of living in Northern AZ. It’s not like the Agencies aren’t well aware of the local housing, the cost of living and the emotional and physical toll the job takes on firefighters, err…forestry technicians and their families. Frankly, I don’t believe they give a damn beyond lip service, or change would have come years ago. Instead we get a whittling down of “perks” (bye, TOS) and inane budget modernization plans. If you need more proof, witness how quickly hot button issues (inclusion, to name the topic du jour) have time, funds and programs developed and thrown at them, and you see what I mean. *Before the haters pile on, yes, they’re important topics, and yes, they’re inherently easier to address by fiat, but when we’re talking about priorities and perception, it’s not a good look. Addressing pay and overall welfare and quality of life issues would benefit everyone.*

    I applaud GRWFF for their attention and the work they’re putting in, and would love it if those changes took place before I get pushed out of a primary fire position, but in the meantime I’ll continue to sell my soul for OT so I can afford to meet the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. It’s about all you can do working for the (insert Agency here).

  5. That you think a fair and realistic increase in pay, or the Agencies not whittling away benefits is “entitlement” is a clear indication of how deeply entrenched backwards attitudes have become. Maybe we shouldn’t “entitle” all firefighters to a radio. Maybe we should ditch LCES. How about we revert to aluminum hard hats? Dungarees instead of NOMEX? Do away with ear pro? Take your “it was good enough 30 years ago, so it’s good enough now” attitude, and go home.

  6. What is your suggestion oh wise sage? Just continue to say nothing as the system grinds to a halt and no one is left to do any work except a few remaining, abused employees that couldn’t care less?

  7. Wow, is that my district ranger, or forest supervisor commenting? This is a common sentiment among line officer leadership in the Forest Service. That fire folks are an entitled group of whiners who already take more than their share of the budget and don’t produce anything other than all their flagship national targets while also responding to the call of duty for the nation and international emergency situations. This is only when they are amongst themselves otherwise they are paying lip service to work/life balance, risk/reward and appropriate response. Land management leadership is toxic because of its lack of authenticity and ability to fight for it’s employees with congress. The care is for the next promotion on the ladder and oh better not step outside the box or I’ll end up in the basement in the RO.

    That is why this legislation is so critical. Otherwise, while leaders have their head in the sand and our certs shrink in remote duty locations and folks bail off the ship for better paying jobs, one day someone will order a Type 2 team and 5 hotshot crews and they’ll be lucky to get an engine and ICT3. This is important for the nation’s ability to respond to emergencies. Right now we have firefighters and IMTs coordinating national vaccinations. Muzzled, are you there? It’s harder and harder to fill out IMTs and our unable to fill lists for resources have drastically increased in the last decade. We are literally paying starting firefighters, who sacrifice their time, families, and lives occasionally, 13.50 an hour. Accounting for inflation since 2000, this is roughly a %-10 DECREASE in pay from 2000, while minimum wages rise all around the country. Do the math for yourself.

    It’s time we paid firefighters, primary, secondary and militia (and yes contractors, state, and municipal as well though that’s a whole other fight) commensurately for risks to their health and well being and to their families. You won’t find many professional wildland firefighters living much past their 60s. Some of us are literally on call year around as duty officers, as local incident commanders when our community members need help, and we all answer the call when the alarm rings every summer, traveling across the United States for weeks or even months at a time. We do this to protect the water we all drink, the woods we recreate in, the houses we cherish, the national landscapes we value, and the lives of our fellow citizens. It’s time.

  8. Starting GS-3 wage= 13.45/ hour
    Washington state min wage= 13.69/ hour
    Starting GS-4 wage= 15.10/ hour
    Costco starting wage= 16.00/ hour
    Amazon/ Target/ Best Buy starting= 15.00/ hour

    But Costco isn’t paying the added bonus of sunsets.

  9. One real issue with the federal agencies is the amount of top heavy positions that are in the agencies….There are way to may GS-11’s-14’s as these positions are designed to promote incompetence….. the positions that actually do the work are forgotten. Just look around and you will see it in every agency.

  10. One real issue with the federal agencies is the amount of top heavy positions that are in the agencies….There are way to may GS-11’s-14’s as these positions are designed to promote incompetence….. the positions that actually do the work are forgotten. Just look around and you will see it in every agency.

  11. I was just told by a co worker even the regional overhead are talking about how in the near future we won’t be able to staff even 58% of our engines. Many mid level 10-15 year firefighters have left to other agencies or even jobs out of fire in general. Something has to change.

  12. Shout out to the folks who still work in the agency and fight for change everyday, and have been for decade.
    But I guess if you don’t post about it on the internet, it doesn’t happen.

  13. Some of that may be due to those that stuck around after the additional engines and crews added around 2000 retiring.
    Historically, many folks have left to Federal Fire Depts or CALFIRE, etc. due to better pay and less responsibilities (Forestry Technician additional duties), so that part isn’t new. As I’ve said before, use your seasonal time to decide if the job is right for you and if you’re willing to deal with the limitations vs the benefits. Your choice. I hope GRWFF has success in their efforts, and maybe focus the efforts on better pay. One step at time might be the ticket.

  14. Frankly the ones I hear crying and ranting about people wanting change and better pay and benefits are the ones who are usually the least productive on the crew or helibase or station. We all know at least one crudgy old supervisor who will turn down calls and let another resource take it instead. Be suspiciously quiet and not pass on info for OT opportunities or dodge project work. They really resist change because they know it will out them on how non productive for they agency they really are….just getting by counting the years until retirement (or retired and now hold themselves as some kind of legend). With more pay will come more attention…but those of us already putting in good work and going the extra mile aren’t worried about that….we want to be paid what we’re worth….obviously to self righteous resistors know they were probably overpaid even at these current embarrassingly low wages.

  15. As a USFS retired, 80 year old, who fought wildland fires for 30+ years starting in1958, I am happy to see this concept move forward.
    Good Luck!!!

  16. Exactly right. Also Costco doesn’t offer job security, 1,000 hour OT summers, per diem or any of the fun of this job. People make choices, Costco is always an option. Folks who would like the extra 90 cents should go for it. They could probably get out on a smoke break to watch the sunset.

  17. For anyone else that has enjoyed Willie’s stance on mental health issues/better treatment of forestry techs, and are trying to make that last minute decision as to where to work this year, he runs a crew out of R1. Must be back in the office already since you’ve got so much time to troll on here, bud.

  18. Hope these folks and any others of similar inclination are able to actualize even a few of their aims.
    Irrespective of location the reality for probably most wildland firefighters is that the cost of living isn’t getting cheaper and if anything it’s becoming more expensive.
    Wildland firefighting is a specialized field of work and those working in it starting from the boots on the ground up should have that recognized. One form of recognition would be for them to be compensated appropriately for the inherent danger, specialization of the work and value to the wider community, etc.
    Fire fighters shouldn’t have a need for a side gig or hustle in some fashion during the off season. It would be better if they could get the necessary R&R, enjoy life away from fire, not have to count pennies.
    Clearly it’s not an easy problem to solve otherwise it would’ve been solved by now but people gotta make waves or something

  19. My hat is off to all of the young folks that have taken this bull by the horns, and press for long-needed change. It’s not a “new” issue, merely one that can no longer be ignored. As the Helishot Crew Captain on the Santa Barbara Ranger District in 1978, I was very fortunate inasmuch as my wife, daughter and myself lived in a government house on the compound at Los Prietos. Even with that lucky break, we still qualified for food stamps. Though we were too stupid or proud to claim them, the fact we could have, speaks for itself.
    The dedicated young Firefighters are struggling more now. Than us “old dogs” ever did. I wish them all the luck for a brighter, better future with far less divorce and family stress.jw

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