Forest Service Deputy Chief tells Senators the agency needs to increase fuels work and the pay of firefighters

Chris French recommended an increase in pay for firefighters and boosting fuel management projects by 200% to 400%

Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service
Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testifies before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 24, 2021.

It is not often that I watch a Senate or House committee hearing in which wildland fire was a topic and later feel positive about what I heard. The June 24 hearing before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was different. Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service gave citizens of the United States hope that the agency has a realistic view of the world for which the agency is responsible, and most importantly, can speak honestly to Senators about what they can do to help.

Mr. French answered questions about wildland fire and other topics from several Senators during the two-hour session. You can see the entire hearing at the Committee’s website — it begins at 32:50.

One of the most interesting topics to firefighters was the discussion about pay. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico spoke in clear text when he asked about pay — “How much should we be paying our entry level firefighters? And clearly it’s not $11 it’s not $13.”

“Well, I think clearly enough to support a family,”, Mr. French said, “And to compensate the risk that they take on behalf of the entire American public…. At the end of the day we’re training firefighters at the entry level and then losing them to other firefighting organizations because they are paying double or triple amounts.”

“What is the delta between what you’re paying and what CAL FIRE pays,” Senator Heinrich asked.

“Almost three times, at times”, said Mr. French.

Mr. French was very eloquent, answered questions clearly and concisely, and didn’t ramble on about personal issues. He mentioned that he started his FS career as a GS-4 firefighter in 1994. He should be invited back.

Here is an index of topics in the hearing that wildland firefighters might like to check out.

      • 56:20: Firefighters’ pay and a more professional workforce.
      • 1:45:10: “Quite frankly Senator, we haven’t had the resources to carry out [prescribed fire] work at the scale needed.”
      • 1:50:20: To deal with the backlog of fuels projects, “We have to scale up our work by at least two to four times what we’re doing right now.”
      • 2:19:20: How much should we be paying our firefighters?

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Forest Service Deputy Chief tells Senators the agency needs to increase fuels work and the pay of firefighters”

  1. Better late than never hearing someone in FS leadership actually tell Congress what they need. My optimism is not high however. I heard a report this morning on NPR where a senior Admin adviser said they were hoping to raise base federal wildland firefighter pay to at least $15/hr. That is not even a GS-4 in my locale. The minimum entry level should be at least a GS-5, about $18/hr.

  2. I like Chris French. Really refreshing to hear him speak, and I hope he stays on with the USFS for a long time

  3. Thanks Bill for posting the link to the hearing and I want to say, good job Chris French! I am an Air Quality Specialist and I worked for the FS in R3 and R8. I liked what you said about the differences between the East and the West, but the real difference is management. I hope that with a new Chief that we will see the FS make the necessary changes to reduce wildfires and improve the lives of all Americans, including current and former employees.

  4. Both of these situations should have been taken care of decades ago!! What about hazard pay? It’s the same hazard for everyone! Why should anyone be paid more $ when the hazard is the same for everyone!! Is one persons life worth more than another’s? How about an hourly pay scale for fighting fire based on your qualifications/experience! I was doing crewboss trainee assignments as a gs-4 with gs-5 and above as crew personnel being paid more than I was with none of the responsibilities. Some of those people were from other departments of the forest service with little fire experience. If you voiced your concern about it, you were labeled as having a “bad attitude”! WHO WOULDN’T!!!!
    When I left the forest service I had 13 fire seasons. My wage was $10.76 and hour I believe. That was in 1998.
    I wouldn’t give those 13 seasons up for anything! I loved everything about fighting forest fires! It’s going on 23 years that I’ve been out, and I still get goose bumps seeing or talking about it!! Just turned 60, and I’m entertaining the thought of doing it next year if someone would hire me.
    The people who have risked their lives for decades have been paid peanuts for doing what they do (risking their lives)!!
    It’s time for the powers that be to “DO THE RIGHT THING”!!!!!!

  5. Good report. Thanks. Congress usually tells the FS to go change its internal budget priorities to find more money. Maybe this year will be different. It’s also concerning that Congress may tell the Agency to dip into its own discretionary money to increase pay. It would be wonderful if Congress actually increased the Agency budget with added money as opposed to reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  6. This confirms my opinion that outgoing Chief Vicki Christiansen was out of touch with the rank and file, particularly the 462 series men and women who carry the everyday workload in fire and fuels management.


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