California politicians call for larger, year-round work force for wildland fires

They want to reclassify more seasonal federal firefighter positions as permanent

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Elkhorn Fire California
Elkhorn Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, September 15, 2020. Photo by Mike McMillan.

A group of 23 United States Senators and Representatives signed a letter Wednesday urging the Biden administration to transition to a year-round federal firefighting workforce.

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla and Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Scott Peters and Jimmy Panetta initiated the effort along with Representatives Julia Brownley, Salud Carbajal, Jim Costa, Mark DeSaulnier, Anna G. Eshoo, John Garamendi, Jared Huffman, Sara Jacobs, Barbara Lee, Ted W. Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Jerry McNerney, Grace F. Napolitano, Adam B. Schiff, Brad Sherman, Eric Swalwell, Juan Vargas and Pete Aguilar — all from California.

While all of the signatories were from California, the message does not specify that a change in the workforce would only apply to that state.

The full text of the letter sent to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior is below:

March 29, 2021

We write to you today to request that your agencies transition to a year round wildland fire workforce, which should include reclassifying more seasonal federal firefighter positions as permanent positions. We ask that you let us know if you need additional resources to fulfill this request.

As California and the West continue to contend with historic and destructive wildfire seasons, 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. Last year, California had over 9,900 wildfires, which burned a record-setting 4.25 million acres, killed 33 people, and destroyed nearly 10,500 homes and structures. And this year, we are already well above average for both the number of fires and acres burned. Because the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California, and climate change all but ensures an ever-expanding fire season in the years to come, we must begin to adapt our federal resources to better align with needs on the ground.

Transitioning to a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires and conduct prevention work nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions when needed, support increased staff capacity to perform actions outside of the fire season that reduce fire risk, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process.

We appreciate your attention to our request, and stand ready to help however we can.

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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.

7 thoughts on “California politicians call for larger, year-round work force for wildland fires”

  1. So Cali politicians can thumb their noses at the rest of the country and Uncle Sam as they see fit but NOW they want the Feds/ the rest of the country to help and PAY to help with their fire problem??? How one sided is that? We’re supposed to leave the political crap out of this stuff but everything about this topic is political.

    1. California is actually one of several states that pays more in federal taxes than it receives back in federal spending. So the rest of the country won’t be paying for anything. They’ll just be giving less to other states than they have in the past.

  2. We not only need a year round federal fire fighting force, we need the same from CalFire. Last year they were under staffed and overwhelmed by all the fires that have become the new normal in California.

    1. Sounds great. Do I get to take time off in the summer now or you want me to just give up my personal life to the big green machine?

  3. I’m trying to figure this one out. So they want to move more temporary seasonal employees to permanent career positions that are 26/0, permanent full time?

    I think Feinstein’s office is a bit out of touch here. The USFS has already put out their plan for more permanent employees, 80:20 permanent:temporary I believe?

    I’m guessing this will backfire tremendously. I used to work in R5 and the only reason I’m still in fire was I took a downgrade to another region because the only option for a career was a permanent 26/0 position in California. No thanks

    Even Redding Smokejumpers had to request to downgrade their position from 26/0 to 18/8 because they couldn’t recruit anyone to take the job, which for many would be a huge upgrade to getting healthcare and retirement benefits. If you can’t fill entry career positions, then how do you fill higher up career positions?

    The issue is pay. Who can afford to commute into work in the winter as a 26/0 gs 4 or 5 or 6? I’m a GS-6 step 3 and unemployment BEATS my base paycheck, even before deductions.

    Who can mentally afford to work year round? With a 26/0 position we can easily see Overtime numbers hitting 1,500. So a 2000 hour base year, 1500 hours of OT and 100 nights away from home? For $15-$18 per hour? And while other agencies pay portal to portal, the feds don’t, so really the wage drops even more, because while others get OT for 8 additional hours (at minimum, $30/hour x 8 = $240) that means the feds are making much less per hour if you look at other agencies. So really a fed on assignment only makes 2/3rds of their reported wages when you compare because for 8 hours their wages are $0/hour vs OT rate for all other governmental workers.

    In California, I don’t know of other governmental fire agencies that don’t pay portal 2 portal.

    This is going to send even more people away and make retention even more difficult.

    The other big news of the week is that Cal Fire is getting Billions to bump their workforce by 48 new crews. Where do you think they recruit from? You guessed it, USFS.

    When Cal Fire pays double or more for equivalent jobs, how can the feds expect to recruit or retain? The pay difference is no small amount, millions of dollars of income just in the pension income alone, so several – if not tens- of millions of dollars difference in just pay alone, with much better benefits on top of that.

    You can’t make this up!

    So I know some old people will blast me on here that I should be happy to earn $25k/year take home pay after months of jumping and staffing management positions on large fires, but it just doesn’t matter what anyone’s opinion is anymore. It’s an economics issue.

    How can you retain employees when the same job, often with less responsibilities, pays millions of dollars more with better benefits on top?

    Cal Fire is hiring over 1,500 new employees, there is a line forming from USFS ranger districts straight to the Cal Fire stations, and I think it’s a shame for our federal wildfire response program.

    1. Smokejumper Bro,

      Well said!
      Hit all the main issues.
      All of the 26/0 GS 5’s on the R5 crew I work on switched by choice last year to 18/8.

    2. Getting laid off for several months to travel, ski, or spend time with family is probably the biggest perk the FS offers that other potential employers don’t. And it saves the agency money. Why would they try to change that?


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