Congress appropriates $3.3 billion for wildland fire

The bipartisan infrastructure legislation increasing the pay of firefighters will be signed by the President next week

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U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

Baker River Hotshots
Baker River Hotshots, still image from their 2020 fire season video.

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.

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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.

58 thoughts on “Congress appropriates $3.3 billion for wildland fire”

  1. Thank you to Casey Judd and all the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA) that have worked on this for 20+ years. Now lets hope we can get the Administration to hold OPMs feet to the fire (literally and figuratively) to make this job series happen in a reasonable time frame.

    1. Thanks to folks at Grassroots for building and facilitating a cohesive movement, volunteering so much of their time, and getting so much accomplished in such a short time..Thanks to all the GS firefighters that have worked to advance the cause and to get your voices heard. This is a great start, and hopefully stops some of the hemorrhaging of Forestry Techs until the more comprehensive Tim Hart act goes through.

      1. Grassroots didn’t have much, if anything to do with this one. It’s been in the works for quite some time in one form or another.

        1. I Disagree 100%. I’m not affiliated with Grassroots, other then I’m a firefighter. They have gotten the ball rolling like never before, and kept the pressure on like no one else. I’ve been working in fire for almost 2 and half decades and I appreciate Casey’s effort over the years, as I remember talk of of his efforts back in the 90’s. If working on a crew for most my life has taught me anything, it is nobody is going to anything for you..if you want something done work together to get it done. Grassroots has exemplified that, bringing GS-3’s to the table with FMO’s for inclusive solutions. Cheers to everyone involved in this!

    2. I guess it’s just a coincidence that Grassroots gets going and within a year we get this in the infrastructure bill? ??

      No knock on anyone but I can assure you, as a participant with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, we worked with the staffer that wrote this piece. If you may recall originally it was a “fire manager” classification and there was a qualifier on wage increase that you must earn below state minimum wage, so only GS3s in Cali would see a raise.

      Grassroots was able to be involved and work on that language. Job classification isn’t owned by anyone, sorry.

      1. True. But give credit where credit is due. FWFSA has been working on this for over 20 years. Just look back 10 years or so on Wildfire Today. You’ll find multiple articles from Bill supporting all the work by FWFSA. All that hard work from before the age of Zoom, Facebook and YouTube. There’s been hard work going on here from back when we had to actually meet our Representatives face to face. (I did. And followed up with Staffers using a real phone.) If you want to say that Grassroots has ownership in this, fine. But FWFSA does too. Maybe FWFSA is the seasoned, well rounded, older guy on the handcrew, and Grassroots is the new first year kid with a strong back who’s eager to prove himself. But it takes both kinds, and everything in between, to make up a handcrew and dig line.

        1. Yeah well it matters what you do now. And calling Grassroots a “new first year kid” is just dumb. We have hotshot superintendents, multiple Fire Chiefs, CISM members, lobbyists, and are all working for nothing. It’s all volunteer, no dues, and no restricted access for anyone that wants to be a part of this.

          We work in a positive way to make real changes. If I had $10, which apparently I’ll have once infrastructure reforms are implemented, I know where it would go.

        2. “Maybe FWFSA is the seasoned, well rounded, older guy on the handcrew, and Grassroots is the new first year kid with a strong back who’s eager to prove himself”

          I think you might have struck out on this analogy….

    3. Gee wilikers, this sounds great, now after a decade of working 1000 hour ot seasons to make 50k a year and now I’m supposed to get a pay raise. We will see what happens first… I’m going to fired for not taking an expiremental medical procedure or get a 20k pay increase! Talk about feast or famine. This is what is wrong with the Agencies to begin with.

      1. Get fired for taking a “expiremental medical procedure”

        What procedure do you need to get that they will fire you for?

  2. Awesome! Now, who is going to do all this work? The NPS has had a 40% and FS has 38% reduction in it’s workforce. Seriously, who gonna do it?

  3. Usually I’m not much of a better picture person, (specticallity – spec-ata-calla-ity- that which is formed over years and years of hearing the same thing, with no action; also see doubtful)

    However, seeing how this will become law, I think, brings us one step closer to making things better for those looking at the wildland fire service (blm, fs, bia, etc) and seeing that they might be able to provide for themselves and their families. It provides for the employees who have stuck it out, and those just entering the field.

    Thinking positive that this will address some of the issues….

    Seeing Casey Judds name in the earlier comment made me realize how long this has been in the works for

    Seeing the other comment about the reduction in workforce makes me wonder…..who is going to be there next summer and the the summer after…..

    Stay well

  4. Some clarification is needed on whether that $20k bump is for hard to fill duty locations, or across the board. I’ve seen both said with some certainly, so it’s unclear to me. Determining if it’s a hard to fill location, that could be pretty subjective depending on who’s holding the bag of money (regional level, etc.)

  5. Avon asked, who would be affected by the pay raise. Here is an excerpt from the bill:

    “…increase the base salary of a Federal wildland firefighter 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, if the Secretary concerned, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, makes a written determination that the position of the Federal wildland firefighter is located within a specified geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter.”

    1. Sigh… so nothing is guaranteed. Hopefully they don’t screw with OT and H… I hate to be a Debbie downer but I’ve been a fed long enough to know not to get my hopes up and not believe anything until I see it on an SF-50.

  6. Unfortunately my duty station isn’t in CA so a pay raise is unlikely for me (I suspect thats where the majority of it all will go. Considering thats been the highlight, the better pay with other agencies in that state and ignoring the effects of piss poor leadership R5 has in part of why they’re losing FFs left and right) Although I’ll keep spending a lot of time there fighting fire like every summer since I’ve started. It’ll be fun having the SRBs and lower I’m directing on the fireline as TFLD or DIVs making more than me….

    Sadly this will probably spell the end of the Tim Hart bill which was much better for all feds across the country.

    Realistically whats going to happen….what IS happening…is those lower level GS with higher line quals are just not going to find it worthwhile to fill ROs in CA or sign up for IMTs….let the municipalities pushing their people through quals and paying them portal to portal fill those rolls and let R5 pay that bill and handle their own. We’ll kick it back home and maybe finally get a chance to take care of the backlog of projects on our own district.

    1. Great! So if you don’t live in one of these “hard to recruit areas” you get no raise and lose hazard pay? Can anyone clear this up?

      1. This pretty much sums up where we are with morale. We literally get an act of Congress that is supposed to help us but our first inclination is to believe we will get screwed in the end.

        1. Ha! So true. Even my wife’s morale is low. When I told her that the bill that included our pay raise passed, she said “yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

      2. There is nothing in this bill about losing hazard pay.

        This bill provides for $3.3B in funding for wildland fire and fuels management, and $600M of that is allocated for salaries ($480M for USDA and $120M for DOI).

        The pay increase is $20k for those currently making over $40k/yr base and 50% for anyone making under $40k/yr base, with the qualifier that your it is “difficult to recruit or retain a wildland firefighter” in your area.

        Here is a link to the text of the bill:

        The sections that concern us are:
        Sec. 40803.c.2
        Sec. 40803.d

        I haven’t seen anything written that describes what qualifies as “difficult to retain or recruit wildland firefighters.” Sounds like its up to the regions.

  7. Casey Judd, Mike Preasmeyer, Will Spyerson, Bob Becker, and a multitude more : Thanks!!

    1. “Supposed to help”… Your words. Sorry for reading critically the language of a bill that may significantly impact my career and asking for some clarity from others. I’ll put my head in the sand and assume everything the government does is in my best intetest.

      1. Maybe my comment wasn’t written clearly enough, as I share your concerns. I’ve been around long enough to see other bills passed that looked good on the surface only to see the agencies implement them outside of their original intent.

  8. As far as the question on who would be in an area with difficulty recruiting and retaining. It’s determined by the Secretary and OPM. As far as FS goes we have already claimed difficulty recruiting and retaining firefighters for the last two years and gone through a formal process of asking for Direct Hiring Authority from OPM. They granted it, and this has to meet regulatory thresholds to be granted, so it wasn’t just a random decision. I don’t see that changing with this administration, so remember that when it comes time to vote, as a change in administration could mean a new Secretary who doesn’t ask for the continued pay boost. As far as DOI agencies, who knows, but imagine where they share duty stations in the same counties or within 50 miles they will probably get lumped with FS, which would leave a pretty small number of positions at FWS and NPS off the top of my head. (I could see this shifting to CA only in 2 or 3 years, if everywhere else ends up with full org charts and CA is still hemorrhaging positions.) I also agree with the sage advice of someone earlier of, believe it when you see the money in your account! Luckily you have some great folks at Grassroots and NFFE who will be advocating on your behalf. Thanks for all the work everyone.

  9. As to the concerns with hazard pay or any others with switching classifications:
    (2) Hazardous duty differential not affected.–Section
    5545(d)(1) of title 5, United States Code, is amended by
    striking “except” and all that follows through “and” at the
    end and inserting the following: “except–
    “(A) an employee in an occupational series
    covering positions for which the primary duties involve
    the prevention, control, suppression, or management of
    wildland fires, as determined by the Office; and
    “(B) in such other circumstances as the Office may
    by regulation prescribe; and”.
    (3) Current employees.–Any individual employed as a
    wildland firefighter on the date on which the occupational
    series established under paragraph (1) takes effect may elect–
    (A) to remain in the occupational series in which
    the individual is employed; or
    (B) to be included in the “wildland firefighter”
    occupational series established under that paragraph.

    Looks like diligence of those concerned and those working directly with legislators got that covered.

  10. How on earth can it be justifiable to pay people in hard to recruit areas more than in what would be considered easy to recruit?
    Man, I just don’t know how a GS5 in one place makes 20k or 50% more than a GS5 somewhere else. All that will happen if that’s the case is that the “easy to recruit” places will rapidly become “hard to recruit”

    1. Leroy, this is not a new concept. Been used for decades. Only new in the firefighting ranks.

  11. Applause applause applause! To everyone whom has worked on these issues and brought these points forward to the right people at the right time. I tend to agree with others that I am still taking this as a grain of salt! If this does goes through as well as the vaccine mandate, well then good timing because it will only help bring people back to the agencies!

    Thanks Bill for keeping us in the loop in so many topics, not one other article I could find mentioned this about WFF.

  12. I applaud the Grassroots org for their efforts. They were able to accomplish, in 2 years, what the career senior bureaucrats in the agency never could, bravo!!!!!!!
    This is a monumental moment for Fed firefighters, it really is.
    However, now it is time to temper our resolve by holding National and Regional leadership accountable. We need to ensure that follow through occurs and, if it doesn’t, we need to all sign No Confidence letters and submit them to our elected officials so that any inept SES/GS leadership is removed. I’m really hopeful the Tim Hart Act passes as it has much more favorable language and would serve to bolster the language in the infrastructure bill. Not only that but the Hart Act, as written, contain less weasel words and offers even greater protections.
    We cannot take our collective feet off the gas pedal now. It’s time for non union forests to unionize, time to speak out and it’s time for us to punch that time card to see this thing through!!!!

  13. So nothings changed. I live in Flagstaff, AZ where the median home value is currently $628,000. We won’t qualify for the bump in pay and we don’t qualify for locality pay either. I guess I should leave my family during the summers and live in my truck in bumf*** Nevada so I can MAYBE qualify for an increase in pay and afford to buy home.

  14. “It’s amazing the good things that can get accomplished when it doesn’t matter who gets credit.” – Anonymous

  15. Hey, everybody can y’all calm down a hair? First things first, all players deserve a whole hearted thanks. There is no need for any of us to get into a dick measuring game as the net result or efforts to pursue change is starting to come to fruition. Name recognition doesn’t matter, what matters is the substantive progress. Grassroots should be applauded and supported as the major current driver and the only organization that most contemporaneous boots on the ground associate with progressing and advocating for change. I find it pretty exhausting that there is a any sense of rivalry between grassroots and its precursor. It’s an enormous waste of energy. Every party needs to drop their ego and get on board for this and the next big legislative push to come. No one cares what alphabet soup organization with such and such founder started the movement or who finishes it. What most of us care about is a living wage and workforce protections. The bickering is petty, get over yourselves and learn to work together.

    Also, the cynicism inherent in so many of these comments is not helpful. Cautious skepticism and a desire to keep up pressure, fine, but broad declarations assuming the policy has already failed you has no basis in reality. Read the statement posted here by the NFFE rep for the best intel. The next steps are to lean on our elected representatives and continue to pursue the Tim Hart Act aggressively while putting pressure on the secretaries and OPM through press efforts to ensure the infrastructure legislation is enacted as broadly as possible.

    When you share cynicism without constructive direction all you are doing is turning people off to getting further involved. We do have agency in these efforts but government doesn’t change overnight. Stop whining and do something productive…if you can’t manage that, wait and see what the end result is before declaring it’s all bad.

  16. A long overdue reform. Unfortunately, it does nothing for us old timer retirees with pensions based on the old system.
    Next reform — eliminate the WEP/GPO for 6c retirees and index the health insurance premium exclusion to inflation.

    1. And? Things change. Pretty sure people can’t buy a house for 50k while making $130k working at the Ford factory either.

  17. “Uncrustable” – I live in Durango, CO where the median house price is $604,000 with no locality pay either….

    If this isn’t “across the board” I would find it VERY hard to continue working for the Fed. Government….

    It would be a very hard pill to swallow if (FOR EXAMPLE) a GS-7 on Mt. Taylor IHC gets a pay bump of $20,000 and is now making as much as a Superintendent in Flagstaff…. Thats absurd!!! As I said earlier, I would be very inclined to leave the agency!

    Does anyone know if there is a specific timeline that OPM has to have this figured out?

    1. OPM has 6 months to draft the job series. As to the implementation of pay congress has already issued a letter to the secretaries for it to be done as soon as possible. In terms of OPM rule changes and new code OPM averages 6 months to about 2 years over the course of the last three administrations to implement. Faster under Obama, pretty slow under Trump. My expectations are that processes may be expedited under the Biden administration but think mid 2022 at the earliest and probably more likely FY23.

    2. “The median list price of homes in Durango, CO was $569K in September 2021, trending up 14% year-over-year. The median listing price per square foot was $334.” …taken from Realtor dot com.

      Additionally, and this was alarming to me as well, locality pay is not based on any Cost of Living Index or “median home value” like you are suggesting. “Locality pay” is determined by the cost of labor for similar, non-federal work in that particular geographic area. Each locality pay is determined by the cost of labor as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). BLS conducts locality pay surveys in a number of geographic areas, with survey data representing non-federal salaries (including state and local) at distinct levels of work. The cost of labor is not the same as the cost of living, although BLS measures both of these. In effect, readers who comment that the cost of living in their area is higher than it is in areas with a higher locality pay may be correct but it is not directly relevant. The cost of labor may be higher in the other area regardless of the cost of living.

      In a nutshell, us Forestry Techs in R5 stand side-by-side with other Wildland Firefighters (CalFire) that make three times as much as we do, for the same level of work. That is why so much emphasis is placed on the pay disparity in California. Not to mention, the median cost of a home in California just surpassed $800k… hope that clears some things up for you.

      1. (Pro) Dirtbag: not sure why you’re starting/continuing this pissing match. If you really feel so inclined to double check mentions of housing costs on real estate sites, check out Eagle, Minturn, Silvertorne, or Steamboat Springs. These are all federal duty stations in Colorado that surpass 800k, and in some cases 1M for home purchase median costs. I’m sure there are plenty of duty stations in California just as or more ridiculous, but if this is your focus, then you’re missing the point. It’s a systemic problem throughout the Western (end even some Eastern) United States with regards to the inability for entry and mid-level federal employees to secure stable housing anywhere near where they work.
        Colorado too has it’s own state wildland firefighting agency (the DFPC) which pays far better wages and benefits than the feds, and is rapidly drawing from the federal wildland workforce. We also stand by them and do the same work as they do.
        Recognize the fact that we’re stronger as a whole in this battle. It’s not just a California problem…

    3. I agree if this is not across the board and only goes to R5 then this will destroy the agency

    1. So this funding is authorized only till 2026.
      Will it need reauthorization in 4 or 5 years?

      There is authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the Chief of the Forest Service, for the activities described in subsection (c), $3,369,200,000 for the period of fiscal years 2022 through 2026.

  18. I don’t know why folks are all up in arms with this. Any change is good change! If your brother or sister across the line is getting more pay then more power to them! Put the pitchforks away until actual change is in place. Here’s a thought as well, what do you think the areas that aren’t currently difficult to retain or recruit employees will look like when the next district or forest over has pay incentive? There’s going to be some inevitable shuffling. You can bet your regional heads will be lining up for a piece of that incentive on a broad scale on YOUR behalf so there isn’t further bleeding of employees.

  19. So basically the GS-8 and 9’s will make more base pay than the GS-11 DFMO because they are not forestry technicians.

  20. I can’t wait to make substantially more than my 0301 (Admin Clerk) FMO!!! All those BLM folks that thought tagging up for 0401 series was a good idea are now going to look like chumps.

  21. I”m curious as well how the secondary fire positions will be determined. I did see its up to the Secretaries and OPM.. as well does this only go up to a certain GS level ? I know they knock the GS fantastic but they’ve all dealt with the low wages for their entire careers. I guess that part in the PD’s counts .. “(A) an employee in an occupational series
    covering positions for which the primary duties involve the prevention, control, suppression, or management of
    wildland fires” What constitutes management ?

    But bravo for an increase in pay !!!! I’m happy that things are finally turning towards the better with fire ! AS well as increased number of perm positions.

    1. I believe most folks would complain if you tried to hang them. Age of rope would have no relevence.

  22. I am very happy for everyone who will benefit from this new law, I truly am, and maybe a little envious….only natural….

    It will be interesting to see if this address the recruitment issues that the fed agencies face each and every year, my guess is absolutely not…….There will continue to be hiring and retention issues…….Wildland FF is not a very desirable job at face value… will never fix most of the issues that cause our FF’s grief……

    You all need to be happy about this…..don’t worry it will be ok……every thing is right with the world now…..Peace…..

  23. Do you all think that this pay incentive will count toward TSP contributions and our high 3? Or will it be similar to the past R5 retention pay where you get an X amount per pay period and wasn’t part of your hourly pay?

  24. Thanks for the article Bill. Any further info on how these funds will be distributed? So far no one in the USFS region 5 knows if it will come through them or not. Thanks!

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