Senators ask GAO to assess hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters

Nine Senators signed letter asking how to strengthen the federal firefighting workforce

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Briefing on Springs Fire
Firefighters gather for a briefing on the Springs Fire on the Boise National Forest near Banks, Idaho, August 12, 2020. Kari Greer photo for U.S. Forest Service.

Nine U.S. Senators signed a letter requesting that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct an assessment of hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters at the five federal agencies responsible for wildland fire. Those agencies are:

  • Forest Service
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service

The Senators, almost 10 percent of all Senators, asked that the GAO make recommendations for how these agencies can improve wildfire prevention and suppression efforts by strengthening the federal firefighting workforce.

Excerpts from the letter:

Wildfires in the West are now a near-constant threat and we can no longer afford to rely on just 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.


Assess whether OPM should create a new, separate job series and pay scale for federal wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with state firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters had some input into this effort. This is a rapidly growing organization that is becoming a factor in implementing changes that could benefit Forestry and Range Technicians whose primary job is fighting wildland fires.

This is the organization’s mission:

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighter Committee is dedicated to promoting and advocating for Federal Wildland Fire personnel titled Forestry Technicians and Range Technicians. Our mission is to advocate for proper classification, pay, benefits and comprehensive well being. Our mission is to educate the public, generate support and provide solutions to our federal representatives through policy reform.

The three-page letter written by the Senators is below. To scroll to the additional pages, click on or hover your mouse over the document then click on the down arrow at bottom-left.

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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 “Senators ask GAO to assess hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters”

  1. Currently wildland firefighters make about $16/hour. McDonald’s pays $15/hour. No one dies flipping a burger! Pay firefighters a commensurate salary/benefits equal to professional training, assumed risk, health hazards, and tdy of at least $30/hour plus overtime, retirement, benefits, to be fair and hopefully retain the skillsets, and oh yeah, create a new professional series reflecting this!

  2. What will become of active Militia members who earned their Fire qualifications and experience just like the other Forestry Techs who primarily fight fire?

    Will an increase in pay be reflected for us when we’re shoulder to shoulder doing the same work, away from our families, taking the same risks, ready to roll on a moments notice?

    -Timber Beast

  3. Should of been 100 % senators signing the letter! More likely they could care less, unless it happens in their states. Include TSP contributions, more earned A/L & S/L for each federal fire fighter. Hopefully the IAFF union leadership involvement would push it through?

  4. 9 Senators is not 20 percent of all Senators, there are 100 Senators ergo that was 9%

  5. I am curious as well how militia personnel will be looked after in all of this. As forestry technicians get officially more professionalize how do we as militia keep up and get recognized?

  6. There are lots of solutions here. A stipend system could be proposed. Paying the AD rate, etc…

    The militia has been dwindling for a long time but still necessary for many IMTs and fire crew work too

  7. Realistically, most militia already get paid much more than most fire forestry techs. I don’t mean to sound condescending but militia the true definition of “other duties as assigned” because fire is not your job every day. Even though I do support an increase in pay for the entire federal workforce, I think we need to let the focus be on fire first. I can almost guarantee if you are militia you are not a GS-3 scraping pennies to pay rent while performing fire-related duties every day, you are probably in some sort of GS-7 or greater job and getting Overtime and hazard for helping in fires which is a nice bonus but not essential to paying your bills. We are trying to make conditions better for the people who have been grinding it out as a GS-3 or 4 for years and are taking greater risks than the rest of the higher paid staff every day during fire season.

  8. Hi all,

    I enjoyed reading all your responses, all very true. When I led handcrews, up until 2011, I was militia for the USFS and I was a GS11, so yes I wasn’t hurting or needing a financial adjustment. When I was a CDF Captain I led incarcerated handcrews and again the pay was very handsome. I cannot say the USFS was fair to my primary-fire colleagues who were stuck at the forever-GS 5-6-7 status and who didnt earn enough to feed their families, most actually qualified for welfare.
    I wanted to relate though that the USFS made it almost impossible to stay current and get fire assignments because my supv was not fire supportive and didn’t agree with the fire-borrowing taking place each season. Likewise our fmo was not supportive of militia and actually made me hire a third party NWSA contractor to take all my CDF courses, NWCG courses and completed fire assignments to certify my ENGB qualification, yeah a real supportive environment, meanwhile dispatch was routinely unable to fill CRWB and ENGB resource orders. Most of my peers in the militia said heck with that crap and simply hung up their boots, which was a real loss overall for the agency both in experience, wisdom, and maturity on the line. If I didnt enjoy fire so much and didnt believe so much in the mission I might have so adios too. I think my fire career gave our fmo fits too because I started in 1978, long before task-books and computer tracking of training and assignments, anyway it all eventually made its way into IQCS and became official, again, through my own perseverance.

    So yes, we def need a professional series for firefighters and commensurate pay, benefits, retirement, with a 26-0 pay schedule.

  9. “Work in a different job if you don’t like hard work and your current pay.”See how easy that is to dismiss someone’s point of view and add zero to the discussion?

    Amazing assumptions and generalizations from keyboard warriors J and Skyler. I will refrain from doing the same.

    I go on fire assignments when I’m ASKED by fire, I earned my qualifications just the same.

    Skyler, I enjoy working with young firefighters because I try to stop them from becoming you. I explain what being a Forestry Tech means, what being a well rounded employee means, and how you can broaden your horizons and become assets to their entire home unit.

    And yes, you do sound condescending.

  10. You might want to pump the brakes, Timber Beast. Your comment about “stopping young firefighters from becoming you” is more condescending than anything in this thread, but you’re fine dismissing Skyler and adding nothing to the discussion without asking why he/she feels that way. As someone who has been primary fire for nearly two decades, it’s astonishing to me how many militia treat a roll as little more than a cash bonanza, and are happy to denigrate my career choice as something anyone can do as a collateral duty. There are plenty of times I questioned not taking a 5/7/9 rec tech position, but at the end of the day I do what I love, and that’s enough. Concerning this particular subject though, GS9 militia FFT 1s and 2s have little room to criticise a dedicated GS5 single resource boss, something I’ve witnessed many times over. How about advocating for those folks to get their due before immediately asking “what’s in it for me?”

  11. Thanks for all your support in fire and willingness to help. Sorry you got treated like that. That’s not unusual unfortunately.

  12. I totally agree we need to focus on getting primary fire folks paid in a significantly better way with significantly more support. No question.

    As militia, I am happy to stand aside and make sure that happens before I get anything. It’s sucks there is miscommunication and bitterness in this comment section. We need to think as one united team more than we do.

    I do send some of my GS-4 and GS-5 folks out on hand crew rolls or helping with IA as the primary firefighters are off forest. I get all of my folks who want fire qualifications because the more we as non-primary fire know about fire the better our experiences and careers will be. Fire effects go beyond the immediate flame front and the management of that.

    I can’t speak for Timber Beast but I know I am already outside the circle despite my middle leadership quals and as things get more and more professionalize or separated from the other Forest Service missions how do we stay connected and involved? What do we do with that loss of militia culture? Maybe that is filled by more firefighters (forestery techs?)? And we continue to more farther apart. I am unsure if that is the right answer.

    If today they bumped every primary fire forestry technician two GS levels (it needs to be at least that), I would not be bitter but happy for the folks working around me.

  13. Yep…
    Have seen a few forest supervisors show up on a helibase as a helicopter crewmember. Basically the lowest position there.
    That would be fine if they were looking to advance towards helibase management….but no, from all appearances to me, it looked like it was just an easy way for them to get out of the office and snag some OT.
    These higher paid management types need to be required to move into positions more commensurate with their real job..
    Very little in the way of checks and balances when it comes to government run operations imo.

  14. “Timber Beast” Not sure why you call me a keyboard warrior when all I did was respond to your question with my point of view, and even used my real name. I wasn’t trying to stir the pot, merely pointing out that almost every other job in the FS starts at a higher GS level than Fire and is much quicker to advance to those GS 7/9/11 within just a couple years, while it takes well over a decade to get to a GS-11 in fire.

    So yes, I still maintain my opinion that primary Fire positions and their payscale need to be addressed before the other non-fire positions and militia pay issues get figured out. Ultimately, this whole topic is centered around the fact that people are quitting federal fire agencies left and right and we can’t fill primary fire positions because of these pay issues.

  15. I don’t think there needs to be a giant pay increase. I feel like there is a lot of down time that a higher pay doesn’t justify. I think if we became better at not wasting money with tanker drops on useless areas we could distribute that pay amongst everyone. Maybe have incentives such as bonuses for employees for mitigation work instead of fighting fires. More cost effective to prevent then to stop a fire.

  16. Are you kidding Common Sense? You want to talk GS 11 downtime in cubihell? Ive worked in both worlds for 31 years and the amount of actual “work” in cubihell is a joke. I spent the last 18 months of my USFS career working remote for the WO at my home office and omgosh did my productivity soar, no more drop-by visitors, no more loud stupid conversations that disrupt my work, no more endless meetings. The amount of “work” firefighters do is tremendous each shift and they deserve to be compensated equivalent to Cal Fire at the least!

  17. A lot of downtime…because we are first responders. No one would dare question whether or not a structure fire fighter or municipal paramedic has to justify their position based on the amount of car wrecks or house fires they respond to. Sometimes, we sit. Most of the the slow days in season We handle project backlogs for other programs, fix aging equipment, or repair infrastructure the agency can’t afford to maintain. Can you imagine a structure chief in an urban department saying: Sorry you can’t make ends meet, we didn’t loose enough structures this year. Sorry you can’t afford rent, maybe if the town had more meth addicts there would be more EMS calls. It’s absurd. Now if you’re wondering why there is down time on fires…well sometimes the fire determines the pace of operations, and slow days don’t mean slow rolls. Are there cases when things are milked, yeah, but it’s the exception not the rule, and even so, we’re gone for months at a time, absent any semblance of a life. I’m not getting paid for those 8 hours away every night, even though I could be woken up at 4am to chase spots or IA a lightening start. It really balances out. And yeah, I’m sure we can all think of bad actors but most of us are striving to do our best in the face of increasingly intense seasons in a system with a lot of broken parts.

    So I sat, Justify your position to the homeless perms and seasonals who opt to live out of the back of trucks or in local campgrounds because they can’t afford rent in towns in the American West. Justify it to all of us with physical and mental injuries from this job. Tell me I don’t deserve better.

    The reality is A rising tide hopefully raises all ships. There isn’t the need for interdisciplinary rivalry. It’s the political leadership of this country that needs to stand up and take better care of its employees. All we can do as fire fighters is advocate for what we know we are worth. This is a career we are passionate about and have a needed skill set. It’s reasonable to expect a living wage and a job that allows us to pursue goals like families and home ownership. Period. End of story.

  18. So the Senate asks GAO to issue a report.
    In about 18 months, the GAO will send a report back to the Senate, with a list of recommendations. Most will require some kind of legislation.
    That report will sit on a shelf gathering dust forever.

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