Forest Service: It is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage

The agency issues statement about compensation, recruitment, and retention for wildland firefighters

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Firefighters on the Legion Fire in South Dakota
Firefighters on the Legion Fire in South Dakota, Dec. 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I was working on an article for Wildfire Today about the difficulties the federal land management agencies are having trying to recruit and retain firefighters while their employment packages pale in comparison to similar jobs in some state or municipal organizations. I sought out a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service (FS) in California, Jonathan Groveman who works out of their regional office, asking for specific numbers of firefighter positions in the state that can’t be filled.

About 20 hours after we last spoke, Mr. Groveman sent an email with a rather extraordinary official statement. There were no detailed numbers like I requested, but what was sent instead was six paragraphs that indicated that the FS, or at least Mr. Groveman, recognizes some of the issues that are beginning to seriously cripple the ability of the five federal land management agencies to protect the homeland from wildfires.

When Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 17 she squandered two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. It was not clear if the Chief selected that strategy because her chain of command in the Department of Agriculture and the White House demanded that she remain agnostic about adequate funding for those areas, or if she took it upon herself to remain meek, adopting a don’t-make-any-waves posture. If it was the latter, the Chief needs to find another job.

At that point it looked hopeless to expect the Forest Service to be proactive about requesting Congress to provide badly needed funding for protecting our homeland from fires.

It appears that Chief Christiansen will get an opportunity for a do-over on May 26 before the same subcommittee in a hearing titled, “Rethinking Resiliency: Budgeting for the Future of Forest Management.”

In order to solve a problem, first it must be identified — which is tough to do with one’s head buried in the sand.

Mr. Groveman’s statement identified some of the issues that are seriously degrading the effectiveness of federal wildland firefighting. Assuming it represents the stance of the agencies and the White House, the next step is for Senators and Congressmen to work with the agencies to make sure they have the tools needed to do their jobs.  Here are some of the highlights — quotes from the document. Following those, is the complete statement.

  • “Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.
  • “We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do
  • “This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage.
  • “In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.”

The full statement is below:


Maintaining our ability to hire and retain firefighters as we see the complexity of the firefighting environment grow exponentially, has been further complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.

We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do and the administration is focused on equity in all forms. These problems are not unique to the Forest Service and also apply to firefighters within the Department of the Interior.

This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage. Particularly in states like California we are seeing that federal wages for firefighters is about half of what they would get for similar jobs in state and private entities. In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.

We are working with OPM and OMB to evaluate options to modernize the firefighting workforce compensation structure, including job series, pay grade levels, and other changes.

In light of these challenges the Forest Service still maintains a robust and highly capable wildland fire workforce and will be able to meet the demands of what is expected to be another challenging fire year. We work with our federal, state, tribal, local and private partners to be sure we can access all available resources to respond to wildfires as needed.

The Forest Service is focused on creating a more modern firefighting workforce where we have specialized year round capability to respond to the wildfires conditions of not only today but into the future. This includes greater utilization of technology to enhance firefighter capability, effectiveness and safety.

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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.

20 thoughts on “Forest Service: It is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage”

  1. Well let’s step back for a moment. The last Chief left under a cloud of sexual harassment. The one before him back stabbed the then current Chief. So this doesn’t start w current Chief. Yes she was SF in Arizona and Washington. These are “at will jobs”. You can come to work one morning and not have a job. It would take a rare SF to rise to the level of Chief based on qualification. We have a political appointee as Chief ya I said it. Time to accept it and move on!

    Regarding Forest Management w/ exception of R8 & 9 really not doing much of that in the western states. The FS is custodial land agency w/ minimal active management. Be that as it may she is a ok choice for Chief. However she doesn’t have the line/staff experience to understand the culture of the Regions.
    Based on her last testimony to Congress it’s not likely she will be the person much less the leader the FS needs.

    Time will tell

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  2. Los Angeles County Fire Dept, entry level salary for a new firefighter: $64,820
    Los Angeles City Fire Dept, entry level salary for a new firefighter: $71,284
    Angeles National Forest, Battalion Chief GS 9 step 1: $60,415

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  3. Uncle T, she was never Director of FAM for USFS. She had some managerial duties over firefighting in Washington State. She is hardly cut from the cloth of wildland firefighters. She was Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry for USFS, which would lend itself towards an earlier posters theory that her political beliefs may lead her to thinking the FS is not the correct steward of public lands. I don’t have anything to prove that, but does fit with her posturing over the years…

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  4. Well something that should be consider is full retirement in 20 years. Permits FF to seek employees in city county or state agencies. They can go on to advance their careers and pick up another pension.

    Sounds good to me.

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  5. Hugh and Bill, very well stated !
    The “Chief” needs to go, period and the President needs to replace her with a “firefighter person” who gives a damn about their people and OUR LANDS !
    Please remember that they don’t own the lands, they are there to manage them !

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    1. She is a “firefighter person”…26 years as a FF with Washington State and was Director of Fire and Aviation with USFS. On paper she fits the role for the agency…Firefighter and Forester. That said she hasn’t been very proactive in addressing this issue. But she’s not the only agency lead failing here along with countless other staff officers in the USFS and DOI agencies. Not to mention some of the rank and file….You’ll see some of em pop up here, and some probably soon will, spouting off “back in my day we worked for 3 shiny rocks a day and ate bugs and we liked it… blah blah blah” and disparage efforts for better pay…its on all levels that some seem hell bent on maintaining an outdated model of compensation…some who are probably comfortable in their own situation not realizing others’ own circumstances or how it really is.

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    1. You are right. According to her statement they have fired about 0.6% of the employees in the Department of Agriculture. And, implied it was related to sexual harassment.

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  6. Bill,
    In the 2018 Congressional Hearing, Vicki Christainsen stated that she fired over 600 employees. She mislead the people by suggesting that these 600+ were fired because they committed sexual misconduct. When in fact many were being sexually harassed and/or were fired for reporting sexual misconduct.

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    1. I do not believe Ms. Christiansen fired over 600 employees. I cannot find any info about that in a 2018 hearing.

      Here is a quote from her during an April, 2019 hearing, in response to questions about sexual harassment in the USFS:

      Many things we are doing. We are continuing to listen to our employees, we are revising our anti-harassment policy. We are holding supervisors accountable that do not report within a 24-hour period. We have increased our resources for followup and investigation, and we aggressively addressed many incidents of harassment with 23 removals, 5 demotions, 42 suspensions, and 166 other actions. We’ve added case managers and we’re working with OIG to identify and implement the best practices for measuring success, because all agencies really want to know what are the true measurements of success.

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  7. The Forest Service says they can’t retain employees, then why not reinstate the ones they fired. Vicki Christainsen said she fired over 600+ employees. Why not reinstate them?

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  8. Just to play devil’s advocate, could it be that Chief Christiansen is of the mindset that the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of land management at all and it purposefully trying to set the agency up for failure? Then the political advocates could use that result as justification of privatizing management, and even land transfers. After all, consider who was in office when she was appointed, many of the other agencies had leaders that were intentionally sabotaging their mission because of political viewpoints.

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  9. In addition to pay, the hiring process at the federal level is Byzantine. There isn’t a clear way for entry level firefighters to qualify, and that means there isn’t a pipeline to draw from. My son applied for a bunch of federal firefighting jobs months and months ago, and hasn’t heard back. He did hear from Montana, and is on his way there now to be part of a state crew.

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  10. Well put. I have been recently mentoring a younger adult who wanted to get into the firefighting service. After years of hard work getting qualifications and experience they started as a entry level CDF firefighter at a GS-9 equivalent with full benefits. They called me and said thanks for pushing me into a state/municipal employment direction. I can now live on real wages and count on promotion based on what I know, not who I know. Forest Service and Interior need to get their act together to retain people to do these dangerous, physically demanding and stressful jobs.

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  11. I appreciate the relevance and persistence wildfiretoday has shown us, particularly as of late. When so much goes unsaid and so much goes unchallenged, I have this funky website to check at nite, where I know others gather to stay apprised, vent, complain and get inspired. Wildfire today is part of my smartphone circuit. Somewhere between Google and used trucks on Craigslist I land here. Thanks for the unrelenting work.

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