The firefighters pay cut may be averted. Or not.

A long-running effort to permanently boost pay — an effort that’s often felt fruitless and never-ending for thousands of federal firefighters — may be gaining traction in Congress, but it may very well be too little too late to prevent mass resignations in the coming weeks.

In Congress earlier this month, the House passed an amendment to extend a temporary pay increase of $20,000 (annually per firefighter) through next year, which was approved by President Biden. Another bill to make a pay hike permanent remains stalled, though, and NPR’s Morning Edition reported that this latest budget deal averting a federal  shutdown will also — for now — avert a massive pay cut for federal firefighters that was expected by November 17 — today.

Wildland firefighters on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado on July 2, 2023
Wildland firefighters on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado on July 2, 2023 — inciweb photo.

But how many times can individual firefighters and the fed employees’ union and the Grassroots Firefighters warn Congress about high-centering itself in managing wildfire crises?

“Basically this is like a band-aid. It’s not a fix. We need a fix,” says Mike Alba, a union organizer. Alba is an engine captain on the Los Padres National Forest.

Rookie firefighters now make only about $15 hour — which is (dismally) up from just $13 an hour after Biden approved a temporary increase back in 2021. Funds from the infrastructure law later gave many firefighters a $20,000 boost in pay. Tom Dillon, a captain for the Alpine Hotshots based in Rocky Mountain National Park, says everyone’s talking about their paychecks when they should be focused on firefighting tactics and safety.

“It’s kind of a slap in the face,” Dillon says. “The folks on Capitol Hill, some of them aren’t even aware of who we are and what we do and that there is a federal wildland firefighting workforce.”

Crews are now challenged with not only more severe and longer fire seasons, but also by flattening overtime pay, dwindling retention, suppressed hiring abilities, and growing mental health challenges. Alba says this onetime pay bump is a kind of a lifeline: he can spend a little more time with his kids. He will probably keep his higher pay for a while, but just till January — unless Congress actually manages to make the 2021 pay boost permanent.

But morale is low, and the union representing federal employees (a percentage of whom are firefighters) warns that at least 30 percent of the federal firefighter ranks will likely quit if pay isn’t permanently boosted — and soon. They are tired of sweating next month’s rent or living in their cars, and the struggle for a decent wage has worn out more than a few.

As The Guardian reported back in 2021, federal firefighters are often living out of their cars (!) because the job doesn’t pay enough for basic housing costs — even for a single person, let alone a young firefighter trying to help support a family.

Guardian report on firefighter pay

The federal government — including at least five different agencies that employ wildland firefighters in the U.S. — fights and manages  fires in all 50 states. Every major fire in the country relies on federal firefighters and the resources and funding and massive response that the federal government can and does provide. Federal agencies, however, now face a severe and costly retention problem with the wildland fire workforce. If Congress cannot fix this, and the federal firefighting forces continue to bleed fire crews and employees, what’s the backup plan?

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8 thoughts on “The firefighters pay cut may be averted. Or not.”

  1. I can always tell in comment sections and articles alike, a great deal about the individuals responding when discussing pay increase(s). For me (and I feel like a fair amount of folks within federal agencies), when discussing pay increases we’re really talking about time. Increased pay contributes to a decrease in pressure to stack hours during the season to establish what we hope will be a secure financial footing. I really empathize and identify the authenticity of subjects discussing time and how increased pay allows them “buy” more of it (Alba, in this article). I particularly like how we’re seeing more and more space in articles like this speaking to the exodus of experienced leadership.
    The institutional knowledge required to be a successful mid-level leader in Fire is substantial. As you all are aware, this knowledge comes almost exclusively from pounding the ground rather than our favorite red NWCG student handbooks. Not to mention the amount of knowledge/skill/ability/time/stress/bandwidth required to keep 3-5 humans physically, mentally, emotionally, and legally qualified to fight fire for a federal land management agency. It’s a heavy lift.
    I think for too long we have treated our positions within fire as more of a lifestyle rather than purely a job and have accepted the increasingly complex burden required to keep those 3-5 humans effective. Year, after year, after year. We (collectively) lulled our agencies into a false sense of competency as we accepted this normalization of deviation from our PDs – and they took full advantage of it. Now, unfortunately it will be us again who absorb the negative externalities of neglectful agency culture. As the exodus continues, the load will be shared across fewer and fewer competent and experienced people.
    Wash, rinse, repeat.
    Increases pay is a great place to start; but, I think we can do better. It’s a huge mantle that those of us continuing with our agencies (for better or worse) have to take on in a very serious way.

  2. The job has evolved to so much more than seasonal pulaski motors, summer hires needed for grunt work. It is now year around, and the level of knowledge and skill is exponentially higher now than ever before. Even the term ‘wildland firefighter’ is incomplete and missing a large part of the profession.

    Hot shot crews are responding to all kinds of disasters and SAR. Engine crews are responding to medical aids, traffic collisions, hazmat, and other incidents besides wildland fires. In many parts of the country the agency helitack crew is the de facto rural air ambulance service.

    It is time to move past demanding to recognized as wildland firefighter, and start thinking of the job as First Responder for all-risk incidents on the public lands.

    This requires far more than a mere pay bump. The agencies need to address the actual skills needed in the new environment. There is no reason every perm new hire is not an EMT1, and advanced EMT skills should be available on every crew. Bilingual skills should be encouraged (OPM already authorizes bilingual pay for Depts of State and Defense. There is no reason the land agencies cannot use it). Vertical rescue and mountain survival courses should be part of the standard training package. Encourage Continuing Education with skills pay of additional steps for a relevant degree or maintaining qualifications above those required for your position.

    Some of these require legislation, some only require a change in attitude from top management and a willingness to use the tools already available.

    Moving this profession into the 21st century requires more than increasing the pay.

  3. This problem is owned by both political parties. But I’d specifically call out Politicians like Tom McClintok of California, because it’s almost like he has a grudge with federal firefighters.. he continually votes against any legislation that benefits federal firefighters even though some of the most devastating and expensive fires have been on his district…it seems like his plan is to funnel more money to California and less to the federal government. Cal-Fires annual operating budget is 4 billion dollars for roughly 9000 firefighters. That’s twice as much as all federal fire agencies spend for twice the firefighters the whole country (USFS, and DOI). Furthermore anytime there is a disaster declared in California, which is after most big fires, the federal government picks up the bill- sending more money to California. If you claim to be fiscally conservative but you continually vote to spend 4x as much for a similar product, you’re probably just a conman funneling money to your friends.. If you live in the sierra foothills, write Tom McClintock’s office he probably has more ownership of this problem then any one person in the country..

  4. As the son of a USFS Firefighter of the 1950’s, 60’ and 70’s when he finally retired I remember the struggles and issues of a family of 6 to get by on his GS-6 salary and how my parents prayed for a busy fire activity summer. Of course the busy summers equated to few if any family vacations and terribly poor leadership on the Eldorado, did not make for as happy a father as his position on the San Bernardino had with the likes of Lyn Biddison and Ken Clark!

    Dad loved his job and struggled with finances of the GS pay system and advised me that there was not good money in wildfire, “become a city firefighter” was his advice after my second season with CDF.

    The point here is we lived the 1950’s through 1970’s with the threat of shutdowns, lack of fire program funds and the whims of politics. When do we honestly think things will change?

  5. I’m living off the equity of two pieces of property. I was somehow able to purchase a foreclosure in Tooele, UT of all places, and then luckily, the city became desirable and I created a snowball a few yrs later after selling. But here’s the thing, I got lucky with that purchase, and I spent every spare hour working on the place for resale all the while responding to fires. My whole career has been with federal fire. This was 7 years ago, I was 29. I’m a GS 9. Guess what? If I didn’t get lucky with that flip, I would be living in poverty, as I now have a wife and 2 kids to take care of. This is unacceptable to have to be lucky like that to make a life in this career…. The hours and effort and time away from family, the pay, it’s simply wrong.

  6. Well said Kelly and thank you for writing this and posting it, “If Congress cannot fix this, and the federal firefighting forces continue to bleed fire crews and employees, what’s the backup plan?”

    What is the backup plan? I figure that I wont get an answer on here from a legislator – but maybe we can brainstorm what actually is the backup plan? Just reviewing the pdf report to committee from SR2272 WFPPA (Wildland Fire Paycheck Protection Act 2023.

    DOI and USDA have said (results from RFI for S.R. 2272 WFPPA): An insufficient federal workforce to fight wildland fires increases costs to agencies through the need to reimburse states for the use of non-federal firefighting organizations to respond to wildfires. In fiscal year 2022, the Forest Service paid states nearly $470 million for wildfire suppression activities that mostly occurred in the prior fiscal year. This amount is 70% higher than the amount the Forest Service paid to states in fiscal year 2021 for suppression activities. DOI paid states $91 million in reimbursements for wildfire suppression activities in fiscal year 2021.

    So its not states. That costs way more. Could it be contractors?

    When JHR was asked what was up at committee for S.R. 2272 (WFPPA) she said:
    “Forest Service Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera said that an estimated ‘‘30% to 50% of our firefighting work
    force would leave the service and go elsewhere’’ and ‘‘[w]e are starting to see some resignations now.’’ Hall-Rivera also noted that ‘‘[w]e would lose those folks who are leaders in the fire service, who have the most institutional knowledge, and that would be incredibly difficult for us to replace, because it takes years and years of experience to get that kind of knowledge and expertise.’’

    Could it be nobody has a damn plan, JHR is telling them straight up, and if you (fellow forestry technicians) think anyone else besides *you* does have a plan – they dont. Time to implement your plan Get out and dont look back until the changes requested from this forum, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, and NFFE are realized and actual. Best to you! Remember when they come begging for you to come back – you arent cheap – cuz you and what team are gonna need decades to rebuild what has been destroyed.

  7. pay them pay them PAY THEM It is no longer just an esoteric experiance of one of the most amazing things on the planet. Fighting fire is saving lives, homes pay up


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