Forest Service Deputy Chief tells Senators the agency needs to increase fuels work and the pay of firefighters

Chris French recommended an increase in pay for firefighters and boosting fuel management projects by 200% to 400%

Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service
Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testifies before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 24, 2021.

It is not often that I watch a Senate or House committee hearing in which wildland fire was a topic and later feel positive about what I heard. The June 24 hearing before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was different. Chris French, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service gave citizens of the United States hope that the agency has a realistic view of the world for which the agency is responsible, and most importantly, can speak honestly to Senators about what they can do to help.

Mr. French answered questions about wildland fire and other topics from several Senators during the two-hour session. You can see the entire hearing at the Committee’s website — it begins at 32:50.

One of the most interesting topics to firefighters was the discussion about pay. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico spoke in clear text when he asked about pay — “How much should we be paying our entry level firefighters? And clearly it’s not $11 it’s not $13.”

“Well, I think clearly enough to support a family,”, Mr. French said, “And to compensate the risk that they take on behalf of the entire American public…. At the end of the day we’re training firefighters at the entry level and then losing them to other firefighting organizations because they are paying double or triple amounts.”

“What is the delta between what you’re paying and what CAL FIRE pays,” Senator Heinrich asked.

“Almost three times, at times”, said Mr. French.

Mr. French was very eloquent, answered questions clearly and concisely, and didn’t ramble on about personal issues. He mentioned that he started his FS career as a GS-4 firefighter in 1994. He should be invited back.

Here is an index of topics in the hearing that wildland firefighters might like to check out.

      • 56:20: Firefighters’ pay and a more professional workforce.
      • 1:45:10: “Quite frankly Senator, we haven’t had the resources to carry out [prescribed fire] work at the scale needed.”
      • 1:50:20: To deal with the backlog of fuels projects, “We have to scale up our work by at least two to four times what we’re doing right now.”
      • 2:19:20: How much should we be paying our firefighters?

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben.