Friday night, four months after a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill with major funding for wildland fire passed the Senate, it was approved in the House of Representatives. About 0.3 percent, $3.3 billion, is directed at wildland fire issues. The President said he will sign the bill next week after he can assemble members of Congress from both parties at the White House for a formal signing ceremony.
The bill appropriates funds toward a couple of dozen wildland fire issues, most of which are very important, but especially a few that have been near and dear to the hearts of Federal personnel who fight wildfires, especially the creation of a Wildland Firefighter occupational series. This means they will no longer be pigeonholed as they are now in a Forestry Technician job description. A very significant and badly needed bump in salary is also included.
The passage of this legislation is huge. It is a major step toward improving several issues that have contributed to extreme problems in hiring and retention of federal employees who fight wildland fire. Other organizations with much higher pay scales are competing, leading to difficulties in attracting candidates to the federal agencies. Many highly trained and experienced firefighters have left the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior land management agencies, attracted to higher paying positions in CAL FIRE, municipal fire departments, and private industry.
Now federal wildland firefighters will receive pay increases of $20,000 a year, or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary — the lesser of the two. For example, a GS-3 rookie firefighter that would make $28,078 if they were to work all year, will earn an additional $14,039 for a total of $42,117. A GS-9 making $54,433 will get an increase of $20,000 bringing the base salary to $74,433.
The legislation authorizes $600 million for management of personnel — those who fight fires.
- The bill directs OPM to develop a distinct “wildland firefighter” occupational series.
- The DOI and FS shall convert no fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to full-time, permanent, year-round Federal employees who will reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land for at least 800 hours each year.
- The base salaries of Federal wildland firefighters will be increased by the lesser of an amount that is commensurate with an increase of $20,000 per year or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary. This could be implemented if the job is located within a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter.
- Develop mitigation strategies for wildland firefighters to minimize exposure due to line-of-duty environmental hazards.
- Establish programs for permanent, temporary, seasonal, and year-round wildland firefighters to recognize and address mental health needs, including care for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other provisions of the the bill. (M = million)
- $20M, Satellite fire detection
- $10M, Radio interoperability
- $30M, Reverse 911 systems
- $50M, Slip-on firefighting modules for pickup trucks
- $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
- $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires
- $20M, Joint Fire Science Program (research)
- $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
- $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
- $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
- $500M, Prescribed fires
- $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks
- $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products
- $200M, Post-fire restoration
- $8M, Firewood banks
- $10M, Wildfire detection and real-time monitoring equipment
One issue that will need to be monitored is how long it will take the federal government to implement these changes. The increase in pay needs to take place very soon, since the federal land management agencies are hemorrhaging firefighters. Hopefully the new pay scale will begin no later than the beginning of fiscal year 2023 on October 1, 2022, but sooner would be better.
On October 19 another piece of legislation was introduced in the House,
H.R. 5631, the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (Rep. Joe Neguse) which has some overlap with the bill passed Friday. It has numerous provisions, including pay raises with portal to portal compensation, creating a national “Federal Wildland Firefighter Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Database” to track chronic disease, mental health leave, tuition assistance, housing stipends, and other items. A hearing about the bill was held October 27, 2021. (More details about the legislation are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)
One issue none of this recent legislation addresses is the inadequate funding of aerial firefighting — the use of air tankers and helicopters to assist firefighters on the ground by dropping water or retardant to slow the spread of wildfires, which is necessary for Homeland Security. The Federal agencies entered the year with 18 large air tankers and 28 large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts, when they should have about double those numbers. And instead of the existing 1-year contracts, they should be on 10-year contracts which would make it more feasible for companies to acquire and maintain aircraft and personnel.