Analysis finds that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most Western counties

Firefighters on the Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon Fire
Firefighters on the Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon Fire May, 2022. Photo by Rickie Cooper, Security Fire Protection District, Colorado.

An analysis of their pay and costs of living found that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most counties in the Western United States. The study was conducted by a seasonal wildland firefighter with a background in government budgeting and financing who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy. It can shed light on some of the reasons firefighters are leaving the federal agencies in large numbers and why Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said last week that only 50 percent of Forest Service firefighter positions are filled in some Western areas.

The analysis for GS03 through GS09 firefighters assumed that they work 680 hours of overtime each year, which in a six-month fire season works out to 26 overtime hours each week. It is not unusual for them to work more than 1,000 O/T hours in what has become a normal year, but it can be much less in a very slow fire year. Working extremely long hours away from home with few days off is another reason why firefighters are getting burned out, suicide rates are very high, and family life is challenging.

If the analysis only considered base salary with no overtime, it is likely that the results would have been far different.

A county was considered affordable if it fell within what was described as the common “50-30-20” personal budgeting strategy. This strategy says that 50 percent of someone’s income should be spent on necessities, 30 percent on non-essential purchases, and 20 percent on savings / retirement.

Below are the first five paragraphs of the three-page analysis. You can download the full Microsoft Word document here.


Introduction

Advocacy groups like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and National Federation of Federal Employees have spent the last several years highlighting the pay and retention issues facing the wildland firefighting workforce. These efforts were successful when a roughly 50 percent pay increase for federal wildland firefighters was included in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure bill.

However, federal wildland firefighters have yet to see this money hit their paychecks. One reason for this delay is that the bill included language that the pay increase would only apply to “difficult to recruit / retain” locations. Although Congress intended this pay increase to apply to every wildland firefighter, there are reports that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior are looking for a “data-based” justification that may cut some wildland firefighters out of the intended raise. The U.S. Forest Service reported they are conducting “initial analysis comparing average federal and state wages and house purchasing power for firefighters (delineated to common wildland fire geographic areas) … to determine a ‘specified geographic area that is difficult to recruit or retain.’”

This analysis [conducted by the firefighter] compared the salaries of the 2022 GS03 to GS09 pay rates to three cost of living factors: the price of a 1 bedroom rental, monthly food costs, and the total monthly costs of owning a car. Since wildland firefighters rely heavily on overtime and hazard pay, this analysis assumed a firefighter works a six-month season with about 680 hours of overtime but 0 hours of hazard pay. Counties were determined to be affordable if less than 50 percent of salaries went to cost of living. Healthcare, childcare, utility, and retirement costs were not included in this analysis. See end of report for details on methodology.

Results

This analysis found that the average cost of living in western counties was $2304 a month. The most expensive county with significant federal public lands presence was Skamania County, just northeast of Portland, Oregon at $3137 a month (Gifford-Pinchot National Forest). Sierra County, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico (Gila National Forest) was the least expensive at $1742 a month.

The majority of Western counties were not determined to be affordable on a GS03-GS09 salary, since living expenses far exceeded 50 percent of wildland firefighter salaries. The following table shows what percent of income a federal wildland firefighter at different GS levels would expect to spend on basic needs across the Western U.S.

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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.

45 thoughts on “Analysis finds that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most Western counties”

  1. I work in Region 1. I pay about 80% of my take home (base 8’s) to live where I work. Sure the numbers look a little brighter when you factor in the average overtime amount but it’s really not great for mental health knowing that you need to take pretty much any hour of overtime you can get just to make a living wage.

  2. I think the most striking aspect to me was that the average wildland firefighter is a GS-5. And of 10,000 wildland firefighters in the USFS, only 400 are above a GS-9 level. So 4%.

    Outside of wildland fire, the average federal employee is a GS-12. So average for federal service is GS-12 and that’s probably the top 1% in wildland fire… How could anyone look at this and think it’s a career or something to even get started in?
    https://www.fedsmith.com/2021/05/10/characteristics-of-federal-employees/

    If they can’t come up with career ladders and get average firefighters to hit the GS-12 level, then they’ll never make it a viable profession. Customs and Border Patrol was in crisis not too long ago, and they got career ladders for “journeymen” to GS-12. We need that. https://www.cbp.gov/careers/usbp-pay-and-benefits

    1. We could also use their tuition assistance program. How many techs work this job to pay for school anyway? And it could give in avenue to back up FMOs and Rangers with forestry degrees.

      1. This sounds great but having tried to do it for 2 different agencies, HR has no idea how to do it, or they say those incentives are only for GS9’s and up (despite the program on OPM clearly stating anyone is eligible), or that you must prove you have “valuable quals” which is subject to their interpretation. This incentive could make a difference in my desire to stay somewhere but the loyalty I have is on a two week revolving contract and if someone else is offering a higher GS level in a lower cost of living area, I’m out.

    2. I think it’s interesting, it actually took a analysis, to come to that conclusion those of us who live in those areas knew that 3 years ago… Life application applied. Vacation rental by owner are constant contributors to lack of affordable housing in resort and wildland areas, diminishing the availability of affordable housing. The area that I live in San Bernardino mountain top district.nurses,paramedics and fire crew
      Can no longer afford to live in our area. Depleting our area of vital resources.

      1. Hi Kristi,

        We’ve all known this for many, many years just by looking at our budgets and feeling the effects of inflation. I put this together to supplement the personal stories being told, because people often say some variation of A) Back in my day, I didn’t complain about the pay and B) Live within your means and stop spending money on that avocado toast and C) You chose this job, deal with it.

        Using data like this helps tell these people (or more importantly, the people observing the conversation) that A) It’s not the 1990s anymore B) Even living frugally is immensely difficult and C) The federal government needs to take care of its emergency response workforce.

        AirBNB has been an absolute disaster for this country. I read a paper recently that 15 percent of inflated housing costs are directly attributed to vacation rentals. This theoretical pay increase will help us, but our communities will still be suffering until something is done about the fundamental causes of housing. The very least the federal government could do for us is bring back employee housing. It would also help keep units available for non-fire locals…

  3. Where I live and work, in a western U.S. state, the average home price is $890K for a regular no frills house. We’re trying to hire GS4’s.

  4. No I wouldn’t work for the USDA,
    Do more with less,
    For much lesser pay.

    I’m making a little book for my daughter, to describe the last 16 years of my life. This is the last page. Going for the Suess vibe. So sad the way things are.

  5. This is the same 💩 that we in CalFire put up with years ago. Terrible pay, horrific hours, no overtime, just CTO, and being charged rent to live at the fire station. The State even used the excuse that we were “conservationists “, not firefighters. All I can say is hang in there, and keep fighting.

    1. The first solidaric comment from a CalFire perspective with excellent examples to compare to for the Feds. Thank you Old Captain for this.

      1. You’re welcome Rich,
        Things got so bad with us that we were loosing folks to USFS, and the Nevada Division of Forestry. As a seasonal I was working a five day week with five nights to go with it. No overtime just CTO, and bringing home $156.00, a month. The career guys we’re working a 96-hour week with no overtime, just CTO. We finally started getting better pay, hours, etc., by hanging in there and fighting the good fight.

    2. I remember those times. It was a toss-up…CDF or FS. Not discernable difference. CDF turned it around damned quickly. Fed bureaucrats are far more numerous . But…Never, ever give up folks. I wish the best.

  6. 70% vacancies on my unit. Going to be 90% if the raises aren’t going through by this summer. Hopefully there will be some transparency about timeframes and who is receiving in the next few weeks. My two gs 5 employees are no longer breaking even without overtime.

    1. I’m anticipating the same thing. I’m DOI and sitting around 60% staffed on the local unit. If the DC types don’t get the Infrastructure Bill stuff correct, and soon, my temps are gone. Local industry, although not as exciting, pays at least triple.

      1. And we mustn’t forget that there are hundreds of people in land management at the GS3,4,5,7,9 levels working for peanuts in recreation, wildlife, range, forestry, weed management, maintenance, etc. in the same economic struggles that don’t allow them to afford to live in those rural communities where all the prices of land and homes have skyrocketed…and other living expenses. They have it worse than the firefighters because they don’t get H-pay, overtime, or first dibs on housing. But they still work just as hard without any thanks or glory that firefighters get. Nobody tells the rec tech cleaning toilets “thank you for your service”, like they do with firefighters. Leadership needs to work on the equity problems across the board.

        1. Off roader-This is true they do need raises too or the vacancies will increase in those shops as well.

          However, rec techs aren’t under quite the same stresses. Ya know the ol high suicide rates, worn out joints, divorces, cancer… I will have to remember to thank our rec guys for their service though. There are a lot of fire vacancies right now if you know anyone that wants that H and OT.

        2. Agree 100%. I am concerned about what happens if and when in fire we get the pay raises and others within the agencies get nothing. It’s going to drive a wedge through the organization when a GS 5 rec tech on a fire is getting 15 bucks an hour while the GS3 firefighter is getting $25. Or for the silv tech doing refo surveys for peanuts while us firefighters are pulling in 70k a year on standby at the station. The big dogs in Washington need to realize that these jobs are no longer desirable for most people.

          1. I believe at one point there was talk of a stipend for militia firefighters that fulfilled 30 shifts in a position (fft2, TFLD) different amounts for different positions. So that extra pay would be in there. Not sure if that made it into the infrastructure bill or Tim’s act.

        3. Sorry, Off Roader. The people you mentioned do not work just as hard as firefighters. Yes, the pay is abysmal for them but, this is an article about firefighters.

            1. You “obviously” have never rolled to the Klamath with a hotshot crew “at all.”

              1. But I have!! Damn near every year for the 16 years I was a Shot.

                Perfect comeback
                for all these pogues! Make em all put in saw line on the Klamath!!!!

              2. Rock on, Mr. Dobblelina, Mr. Bob Dobblelina. I probably saw you there a few times. Perhaps we even tied in some saw cuts.

                I signed your petition. I hope things get better for all forestry techs. I bounced out the door. I’m now a dictionary salesman for Munson and Associates.

          1. I worked 900 hours of OT last year as Militia. While not our everyday jobs so we can be unpolished as a result, we completed the same training and filled out the same taskbooks as the other Forestry Technicians. In the era of just putting in large fuel breaks/logging we often have more experience in those operations.

            As militia we are not often used to the downtime on fire assignments so we keep working in the rain or whenever. My people have out worked other Forestry Technicians and we have been out worked.

            We’re supposed to be one team and we could argue back and forth. I know we’ll never be part of the tribe but don’t discount our contributions and treat us like professionals.

            If fire organizations were fully staffed and you didn’t need us or our expertise in natural resources or trails or whatever, then ok. But it is not the world.

            Peace.

            1. A lot of rec tech militia types jumping out of planes and smashing into the ground?

              Sorry but if you’re pulling 900hrs of OT as milita…your PD needs to be changed because you are a firefighter and not a whatever they hired you as…thats almost double what an average engine crew is and your employer is taking advantage of you by not paying you the FF retirement later….also they might need to reduce the number of whatevers because it doesn’t seem like there’s enough work load to go around if yall can fight all the fires all summer…..or maybe yall are behind on said work so then they need to hire more *gasp* firefighters. Now how do we recruit those more firefighters?

        4. Hey Off Roader,

          I agree that non-fire staff need a living base wage. I didn’t include non-fire staff in this analysis, because, well I’m in fire. Additionally, such an analysis would probably need to take a similar but slightly different approach to be reflective of “reality.” If anyone ever wants to do something for non-fire staff, reach out and I can talk about what those differences might be.

          Anyhow, aside from that I agree about the necessity of our non-fire people. I’m on an engine, and I’ll say that most trail dogs work harder than me on a day-by-day basis… maybe not taking the same risk when it comes to show time for us, but I just say that to emphasize how much I respect and value our colleagues.

          Plus, our mission is compromised because there’s no funding for trails, maintenance, -ologists, etc. How many of us are used as the go-to people for clearing out trails and doing random maintenance tasks on the forest? How many burn and slash units are in limbo because the biologist one year out of grad school has never looked at a NEPA report before? These roles are so important to fulfilling the agency’s duty to the public, but they go unfilled because our budgets don’t value them.

    1. It needs to be done. If you crawl around Reddit you can find the person who wrote this – they have offered help to others looking to make a “Rec Tech” or “Eastern” parity comparison.

    2. Hey there Eastern,

      It’s on the docket… I have some plans to add in eastern localities in an update, but it’s time consuming to go through OPM’s documents and manually transfer the data to Google Sheets. I also want to add in some better descriptive statistics, better framing, and a map with duty stations on it. All very time consuming, and I just came online today with my crew so I’m unsure when I’ll have the time.

      The hope is to do it in the next couple weeks, we’ll see if I’m able to get around to it.

  7. So much of the infrastructure money will be thrown away on things not related to infrastructure. Giving out $millions outside of the agency to buy love and win friends…the fat cats getting fatter. American taxpayers want their money to go to better management of their public lands, and to make tangible investments to improve the conditions for both the environment and the public stewards who struggle to protect, care for, and conserve those natural treasures. But the D.C. types only worry about themselves and their careers…or the next election. Most of that infrastructure $ will never hit the ground.

    1. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s put reports, analysis, words in the ears of those that make these decisions though. Let’s get the people on board. Fully. Those that have been on the sidelines for the last decades-ish now see their error. The time is now to utilize all avenues and options to build the respect that is deserved. May we return that respect to the public and its elected leaders when we achieve it and not forget our new contract.

      1. Thanks Human for this.

        Any good in this world – whether it be our NFFE union, our agency, our government, our communities, our families – requires us to put up the good fight day in and day out. I’m new in fire but not to government, and I put this together to not be on the sidelines. Happy I did so, and that it is out there sparking conversation. I don’t think we can allow pessimism to rule the day, even if we need to be realistic about the state of the world.

    2. We used to call all that budgeted money “Fiscal Virga”….dry when it hits the ground.

  8. AND the elected members of Congress and Senate think they deserve a pay raise!!
    How about a pay CUT for doing a poor job.
    I know a few Fire fighters in Utah and they have to make work to keep from being laid off when things are slow.
    It seems as If management (term used loosely) either do not care or are not smart enough to understand.
    Keep up the good work FIREFIGHTERS some of us appreciate YOU.

  9. Even if the salary problem is fixed, the fact that so many will want time off for mental health issues that claim to be a huge unresolved problem makes this career non sustainable. If the 2 groups noted that claim to support Wildland Firefighters would acknowledge this fact perhaps they would do more to help folks transition into better and sustainable employment in a 2-5 year timeframe. This is not a problem that any government can throw money at and fix. These jobs were never intended to be long term or careers for that reason alone. The sooner folks realize this the sooner a solid plan can be put together to address staffing needs.

  10. Have lower grade/seasonal fire employees be assigned their duty station of RO (for example, R5 Vallejo). Locality pay would increase salary by 43% off the top. Then, assign them to their local units under travel status. Lodging could be paid for by FS then, and employee would receive a level of per diem to help even more.

  11. I am a jumper would had to forgo this season. I cannot afford to support my family on a jumpers salary. I could in absolutely no way afford to live in the area of my base, I can’t even afford it back at my ” off season” house. It completely sucks, I love jumping but my family and I would be homeless. As it is during season, many of us are living out of the back of trucks or in campers.

  12. Not trying to intentionally be a jerk here, sometimes it just comes natural to me…..A reoccurring theme I hear from folks is life balance, and life balance is a real concern, heck it has been for decades in the Wildland Fire Service, there were years that I was sure I would quit this BS, mentally I must have checked out 1/2 a dozen times.

    All can certainly agree that much better pay and benefits are needed, rank and file have a need to make a decent living, I like what was said about CDF, I started with CDF and it sucked, I jumped to the FS, got to go home at night….Some of you may need to jump to CDF….

    The days that a family can make it on one income is I believe sadly a thing of the past, when it takes 3k+ to live in some of these areas…
    More money will help, how could it not, however you are still going to be on the road just as much, it’s the nature of the work, you will still see 1000+ ot seasons, it’s still going to be a strain on the family unit, it the nature of the work you do, more money does not necessarily mean that folks are going to bang on the door trying to get in, not going to happen, people do not like to work like they used to…

    Yes, Yes, better pay, heck better every thing…..you all deserve it…….It’s coming……it’s time..

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Author of the policy brief here – thank you for your comment. I wrote a personal note when I originally posted this on http://www.reddit.com/r/wildfire – I left a very good paying career with good hours because of mental health problems related to the work… So I end up in fire and end up happier and healthier than ever. I love this job, I love working the overtime to get stuff done, and I hope I’m around for a while.

      I think the mental health piece comes from the fact we do all this work but can’t afford to live. What does it really mean to be a smokejumper if you never see your family for half a year AND can’t afford to support them (even on dual incomes)? We need to take care of our people, invest in them so that their sacrifices for this country mean security at home. Lot easier to work 1,000+ hours of OT if it means a secure and happy off-season.

  13. UP FOR ADOPTION!
    DOI Wildland Firefighter. 12+ years experience on type 6 and fuels crews. ENGB, HECM, FAL2, FEMO, ATVO, ICT4(t). Fully vaccinated! Has own travel trailer. Needs a good home because s/he can’t afford housing.

  14. Why am I not surprised to hear congress has budgeted more money for firefighters but the bureaucracy is finding ways to not get more money into paychecks?

    1. Well, Mr Hubbell

      Not surprising at all. Is it BLM that moved their office to Colorado?

      Maybe the USFS could trade office space with Boeing since they are so intent to park it there to influence the 535

      Bring USFS to the streets of Chi town…maybe they can monitor how EAB is going from there

      Maybe its to move all USFS Stations to the Midwest to “radiate” from the hub to all the spokes, eh?

  15. Everyone seems to get caught up on the idea that wild land fighters are the only employees that can’t afford to live in the west. No federal employees below a GS-11 can. And even they struggle. It’s not just the firefighters that need more. In fact, the majority of the USFS employees fight fire. So let’s do the right thing and not just look at firefighters.

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