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?

ONLY YOU — and all your friends — can fight forest fires!

“All open federal firefighting jobs are posted at usajobs.gov and  applications must be submitted online. At USAJobs, you can search for these positions using the terms ‘forestry technician’ or ‘wildland firefighter.’ The search will return all firefighting positions open for application within both the Department of the Interior and the Agriculture Department.”

The National Interagency Fire Center (nifc.gov) has this and more information online, and the Forest Service has many inspirational videos online explaining the benefits of a “career” as a firefighter.

“The majority of firefighter positions are seasonal in nature,” according to NIFC, “with a typical season lasting from May to September or October. If you are interested in one of these positions, you will need to begin looking and applying for these jobs several months prior, typically in November through early January, as the hiring process can be lengthy.”

NIFC jobs promo

What the people at NIFC don’t tell you is why the applicant numbers have fallen off this year — again — badly enough that some hotshot crews may not be able to send out a full crew, some engines are unstaffed, and IMTs are having trouble filling positions and are even considering combining T1 with T2 positions to make up a fully staffed team.

USFS hiring officials say that only about 6,000 applications were  submitted for fire positions and close to 11,000 applications for non-fire positions — before any sort of qualification check is run on the applicants.  Announcements for temp seasonal positions have been extended to November 13; they were set to close November 8, but the agency has had very low numbers on all announcements nationwide. High school students who are currently 17 but will be 18 by the start dates next spring are encouraged to apply, and numbers of applicants for Forest Service jobs now are so low that chances of a hire are pretty good.

sample federal firefighter jobs currently open
A random sample of federal firefighter jobs currently open

Most of the current openings are for temporary low-pay seasonal jobs. AND — new this year — seasonals will be drug tested. Used to be just permanent hires were, and this new barrier to employment probably has nothing to do with the falling numbers of applicants and other recruitment difficulties. In the table above, most of those with no wage listed are paid on an annual salary basis or are permanent jobs. New applicants with no experience who are willing to move anywhere and really rough it can probably get on this year.

And really rough it might mean living in your car or your own tent dozens of miles from the nearest “town” which is dozens of miles from a real town. They say that doing without the basics will build character, but it can also build issues with your physical and mental health.

Then there’s pay — or the lack of it. Fast-food workers in California are now paid a minimum of $20 an hour. The U.S. sent over $3.3 billion in foreign assistance to Israel in 2022, and $1.4 billion to Afghanistan, but starting jobs for federal firefighters in the U.S.  still pay about 16 bucks, and far too many of those firefighters can’t afford even basic housing.

This is by no means a new issue. Nearly three years ago in the spring of 2021, Bill Gabbert wrote that hundreds of permanent firefighting positions were vacant — just in California. The agency’s difficulties back then in recruiting and hiring seasonal and permanent firefighters meant that multiple hotshot crews did not qualify to respond to a fire with 18 personnel — the minimum required by interagency standards.

“More than a dozen FS fire engines in the state are completely unstaffed,” he wrote, “or instead of seven days a week coverage they have cut back to only five. Thirty modules of FS hand crews, dozers, or water tenders in California have been shut down due to a shortage of employees.” He said then that the gaps in staffing were caused by two main factors — difficulty in hiring new personnel, and loss of experienced firefighters leaving the agency for better pay and working conditions elsewhere. 

From a report released May 13, 2021 by the Incident Workforce Development Group (IWDG):

Today, critical challenges in rostering and managing IMTs is leading to a decrease in the number of teams available for an increasing number of complex incidents.

In the past five years there have been multiple occasions where all available IMTs have been assigned to large fires. Local units have had to face the consequences of managing a complex incident without the services of an IMT.

The situation now has certainly not improved since 2021; fire season is not likely to somehow get cooler and shorter in 2024 and there’s not likely to be a big pay raise either.

For 2022 the IWDG reported that we had just over 3,500 IMT members, with 1,140 of them classed as Command & General Staff.

IMT Command & General staff by position and employment type
IMT Command & General staff by position and employment type

The real eye-opener is team membership by agency. Unless other federal and state agencies are going to greatly boost their personnel numbers on the federal incident management teams, the drops in USFS hires may put a serious pinch on the numbers (and qualifications) of those teams.

IMT membership by agency
U.S. Forest Service employees make up just about half of all the members of incident management teams, with the BLM and state and local government employees combined not even close to that.

State and local government employees account for not quite 25 percent of IMT members, and AD hires account for about 17 percent.

A diminished capacity in fielding and assigning IMTs for megafires (and/or those that threaten major clusters of residential areas, e.g. the 2018 Camp Fire or the 2020 Labor Day fires) will mean that the burden will fall more on local and state resources for management of those fires, which in many cases will mean larger fires and larger safety risks for crews, aircraft, and other resources — not to mention local residents.

Poor Timing for Government Shutdown and Federal Firefighters

Guest Post
By Billy Durst


Another government shutdown looms. No one knows whether it will happen, or how long it might last if it does happen. Based on the current conflicts in Congress, particularly between House Republicans and their speaker Kevin McCarthy, many people’s gut instinct tells them that it will. The last government shutdown, in 2019, was 35 days (the longest in U.S. history), and if that is any indication of how long this might last, government employees could be facing another record-breaking furlough.

The timing couldn’t be worse for one particular group of federal employees — federal wildland firefighters, who are anxiously hoping that Congress will pass legislation that would permanently raise firefighter pay. The proposed legislation is not all that they’d hoped for, and not all that they need to make their pay commensurate with their work, but it is clear that it is all they are going to get — if they get it.

A potential worst-case scenario exists for two reasons. Reason one: temporary cash bonus payments put in place by the Biden administration, amounting to a 50 percent raise, have been in place for over a year. These temporary “retention allowances” targeting the federal wildland workforce’s retention issues, amid historically devastating fire years, are set to expire in October.

Numbers Fire Nevada wildfire Carson City Minden
Numbers Fire, July 6, 2020. Photo by Tallac Hotshots.

Reason two: if the government shutdown occurs as the existing government funding regime expires, also come October, federal wildland firefighters will be forced to continue working throughout the furlough, knowing that when the shutdown itself eventually expires, they will be returning to a 50 percent pay cut.

The best-case scenario is that the government does not shut down, that Congress passes and Biden signs the legislation in a timely manner, and that federal wildland firefighters receive the 30 percent permanent pay increase proposed by the pending legislation. No matter what happens come October, these federal firefighters will receive at least a 20 percent reduction in pay. This inevitable pay reduction of 20-50 percent will occur despite the fact that firefighters’ work is more necessary than ever before, while it is common knowledge among firefighters that the majority of, for example, California federal firefighters could earn higher hourly wages working as fast-food employees.

Redding Hotshots Trail Mountain Fire
The Redding Hotshots conduct a safety briefing before beginning their assignment on the Trail Mountain Fire. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Morale among the workforce is low. Cynicism abounds regarding the intentions of agency leaders to be sensitive to our needs, of their competency to advocate on our behalf, and of Congress to perform their responsibilities required not only to keep the government functioning, but also to pass the legislation needed to partially counteract the federal firefighter retention crisis. These federal employees feel righteous indignation in the face of attacks on the value of their labor, and the words-not-action stance of their leaders.

To make a distressing situation darkly comedic, a recent “system error” saw federal firefighters across the country receive notices through their government personnel system that they were to receive pay raises of nearly 100 percent. Had the agencies somehow decided to work around Congress and come through with the necessary pay increases just in the nick of time, before the temporary bonuses ran out? An agency email a few days later clarified that they had not, and a bureaucratic apology followed the inexplicable “system error.” The ironic timing of this mistake was not lost on federal firefighters.

Whether or not these public servants will endure another record-breaking furlough in the face of record-breaking wildfires, or whether their permanent pay increase will be lost within the machinations of a Congressional “system error,” remains to be seen.

Opinion: Maui fire shows that Hawaii paradise was a dream

Naka Nathaniel is an opinion columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat.

Naka Nathaniel

In Hawai’i this summer, we would glance at the news from the rest of the country and be grateful that we weren’t suffering under the extreme weather — heat domes, deluges or smoke-filled skies — that other parts of the world were experiencing. We remained sheltered in our corner of paradise.

But “paradise” was a marketing ploy, never the truth nor a guarantee.

Today, Hawai’i is reeling and in shock. The rising death toll — currently standing at 55 — from wildfires that are raging across Maui, is simply soul-crushing. 

This opinion piece on CNN by Naka Nathaniel is well worth reading.

Are we ignoring the smokejumpers?

Recent facebook post by Murry, re-posted with permission and slightly edited; he spent 26 years as a smokejumper followed by 22 seasons on a Cal Fire lookout, and he theorizes that much of the public land in the West has burned because we’re under-utilizing smokejumpers.


Guest post by MURRY TAYLOR

Since 2020 smokejumpers have averaged only 4.5 fire jumps each season. That’s a terrible under-utilization of an important firefighting resource. In the past we easily jumped twice that many, and some years four times as many. I’ve seen it many times while on the Duzel Rock lookout southeast of Happy Camp, California — fires were not staffed for a day or two and then went big and cost tens or even hundreds of millions while the jumpers sat unused.

There seems to be a lack of understanding among fire managers in the Forest Service about the capability of these jumpers. Dispatchers have said they didn’t put jumpers on a fire because the “trees were too tall,” or the “winds were too strong.” Clearly they didn’t understand that jumpers carry 150-foot let-down ropes, and they have a spotter in the plane throwing streamers, so they know EXACTLY what the wind is like over the fire.

The good news is that things seem to be changing for the better. Allowing jumpers to get back to 10-plus fire jumps per season would save big money and lots of acres. For those who think we need to get more fire back on the land, all I can say is, Don’t worry, there’s going to be plenty of that given the way fires burn now. The policy of putting ALL these early season fires out while small would be a big help. That way, when August — the toughest part of fire season — arrives, the handcrews wouldn’t be exhausted and scattered all over hell, and the skies wouldn’t be filled with smoke so that Air Ops are critically limited.

Jumpers and hotshots tell me that Yes, sometimes the fuels and new fire weather are factors in making fires harder to catch. But MOSTLY, they say, there’s always something that can be done to catch these fires if they are hit while small.

The Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon has taken a more aggressive approach to putting fires out when small. In the last three seasons they’ve had 192 fires and burned only 50 acres. This was achieved by pre-positioning jumpers during lightning storms, better utilization of rappellers, and contract fire resources.

I wrote a post on this topic a couple years ago. Over and over, while on the Duzel Rock lookout, I’ve heard that certain fires weren’t attacked early because the country was “too steep and too rough.”

Staging Area … July 4, 2023

Today we are continuing an occasional off-topic feature that Bill Gabbert deployed a couple years ago — had been meaning to revive this and JK reminded me. This post can serve as the beginning of an open thread in which readers can talk about issues that we have, or have not, yet gotten into. This is a literally off-topic thread. You have the floor.

The usual rules about commenting do apply, though. And remember, no personal attacks or politics, please. If you haven’t read the rules lately, they are posted HERE.