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.
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.
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?
Did you know federal firefighters are up for a big pay cut at the end of September? They are. You agree with that? We don’t either.
The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next, and if Congress doesn’t act to pass legislation, then the current temporary funding to retain firefighters runs out! This puts federal firefighters and their families in a helluva bind — they will be forced to choose between staying in a job they love with dramatically less pay, or finding better-paying work to get by. The Forest Service itself has testified before Congress that without a permanent pay solution, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of its firefighters will leave the ranks — triggering unsafe work environments for remaining fire crews and leaving many fires unstaffed.
Join with us and the GRASSROOTS WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS and sign this petition to make sure Congress knows what’s at stake here. “We will give the signed petition to each member of Congress,” says Riva Duncan, the organization’s vice president, “and we’ll urge them to avoid the Firefighter Fiscal Cliff. Please share this petition with your family, friends, colleagues — and anyone else who cares about this nation’s beloved public lands.”
Learn more about the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and how you can help here:
The IMDB description of the 1993 film Groundhog Day offers this hope for escaping the whirlpool: “A narcissistic, self-centered weatherman finds himself in a time loop on Groundhog Day, and the day keeps repeating until he gets it right.”
Thirty years of film history later, in our wildfire world we may seem stuck like weatherman Phil, repeating the day (and our fire processes) until we get it right. Yet a range of recent releases may hint of some key transitions.
The legislation introduced on the last day of January 2023 builds from the same-named act of 2021 (should they have just waited for Groundhog Day?), which didn’t progress in 2021, but the emergency frame and elements have reappeared in this new bill. The legislation has bipartisan support, with Republican Montana Sen. Steve Daines joining three Democrats – sponsor Feinstein and cosponsoring senators Alex Padilla of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
While the bill is framed as a response to the wildfire and climate emergency, many of the proposals reflect the rise of “cohesive strategy” as a core vision for fire initiatives. As Wyden said, “To address the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the West an all-of-the-above approach is needed. This means making essential upgrades to keep the lights on when disaster strikes and giving communities the firefighting workforce and latest technology required to get fires under control. Our bill also prioritizes mitigation work now to prevent wildfires from turning into the megafires that destroy lives and property. The climate crisis is here, and the West needs more support.”
Feinstein affirms the all-hands-on-deck approach. “Every level of government and the private sector must be involved in this fight, and this bill will go a long way toward helping us prepare for a hotter, drier future.”
What a region-specific and bottom-to-top bill might actually produce, if a lot of committee meetings, votes, and budget-wrangling welds it into law, may include both specified and unspecified funds to accomplish key fireshed transitions. The news release offers a synthesis – with proposed commitments to landscape-scale forest restoration, community-level resilience, and added emphasis and new initiatives on applied sensing technology and workforce development.
A change of note: the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is to be consulted on one or more Prescribed Fire Training Centers in any state entirely located west of the 100th meridian. This will offer a key expansion and a fire-regime diversification of the essential work by the single national center in Florida, but equally noteworthy is that JFSP still exists and may play a key role in this initiative – since not so long ago folks had to argue to keep JFSP funded.
What may be missing are elements of national workforce change and a lack of “moonshot” glitter in both the funding and unspecified tech initiatives. But what’s here promises to expand recent initiatives to more stakeholders. If adopted, we might see at least one prescribed fire training center identified within a year and funding for wildfire and forest-restoration training centers West-wide (with grants to states, academic institutions, and professional organizations that may speed the rollout). Additionally, up to 20 landscapes of 100,000 acres will use $250 million “to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and wildfire resilience projects.” That’s $125 an acre for some 2 million acres, which promises a lot of work, commensurate with “the true cost of fire” (reported by Bill Gabbert in 2020), which quotes Prof. Ernesto Alvarado: “I think we should concentrate more on the human losses.” These funds will align with $50 million for community grants and a $13,000 per low-income household for wildfire-hardening retrofits.
The challenges to the wildfire workforce are increasing due in no small part to fire regime shifts that prompted the Wildfire Emergency Act, yet the pace of federal administrative change may not be ramping as fast as the fires. Which is where our political change is at now – fed by the concerns from public and legislators and the push by firefighter advocates like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFF).
This is the background to two recent letters seeking to amp up and wisen up the changes. One, sent January 18 from a bipartisan group of seven western senators to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), seeks clarification and correction to federal housing guidelines that undercut firefighter recruitment and retention. Such as: if your roommate leaves (not something you can usually manage), you pay their part of the rent. support to correct housing inequities. As well as changes to bunkhouse and remote-housing formulas for determining rent. In their request for a briefing on OMB Circular A-45R, the senators observe that “Federal wildland firefighters have a difficult and dangerous job, and it is the federal government’s responsibility to support them in this work.”
The second letter, from GRWFF and NFFF to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), takes a broader focus and goes farther — but essentially, even existentially – into the deep regarding the November 2022 GAO report, “Wildland Fire: Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefighters,” that identified some but not all of the barriers and reforms identified by groups like the GRWFF and NFFF.
There’s much in the letter that will shape the dialogues this coming year (which we’ll be following), but as good a place to start now is the direct request to the GAO toward the letter’s close:
“Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and NFFE deeply appreciate the GAO’s initial report. Considering its blind spots, however, we respectfully request a second investigation into these barriers, and a second report, one that incorporates the input of a significant number of current and former wildland firefighters – and prioritizes the wisdom of those who occupy marginalized identities.”
Among many questions and suggestions regarding pay, housing, equity, work-life balance, retirement (covering most of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of which aren’t supported currently), the letter highlights that “the elephant in the room is safety and health – what our firefighters risk every day. Although federal wildland firefighters are at higher risks of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, PTSD and traumatic injuries, these go undiscussed in the GAO’s report. The federal government does not recognize a correlation between environmental exposures such as wildfire smoke and the incidence of cancers or cardiovascular diseases. More than two dozen firefighters died in the line of duty in 2022 fighting wildfires. These risks are unaccounted for when determining pay for firefighters. Prospective recruits and veteran firefighters balk at the low pay for a job that may injure or kill them and will take years off their lives. Although federal wildland firefighters can spend over 1,000 hours every fire season exposed to these hazards, no formal education program exists on either the dangerous consequences or mitigation strategies for employees.”
For the record, Punxsutawney Phil reportedly saw his shadow today and his managers are predicting six more weeks of winter. To my knowledge, few fire managers base their spring prescribed fire plans on whether Phil sees his shadow. Yet we in the fire profession can claim a key functional connection: this rodent-centric celebration has roots in such say-goodbye-to-winter traditions as Candlemas (and its hedgehog) and the Irish/Celtic celebration of St. (née goddess) Brigid, all of which are celebrated with bonfires and candles. So light a fire to the passing of winter, but do note that yesterday’s Fire Outlook predicts a mellower beginning to fire season, which may at least mean we’re not as likely to see the shadows of recent active early fire seasons.
He may be asked questions about implementing the firefighter pay raises signed into law 8 months ago
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is scheduled to testify Thursday June 9 at 10 a.m. EDT before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It will be live streamed, and a link will likely appear on the Committee’s website.
The primary purpose of the hearing is to examine the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2023 which begins in October.
There is no doubt that some of the Senators will use the opportunity to question Chief Moore about the progress, or lack thereof, to implement the firefighter pay raises signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Senators on the committee who usually appear to be engaged on these topics, often asking pointed questions of Forest Service personnel, include Ron Wyden (OR), Maria Cantwell (WA), Angus King (ME), and Lisa Murkowski (AK). I watch many hearings about fire management issues. I don’t take attendance, but have no memory of ever seeing some of the committee members show up, such as Bernard Sanders (VT), Mark Kelly (AZ), or Cindy Hyde-Smith (MS). I may have just missed them on days when they made important contributions.
The Chief’s written testimony for Thursday’s hearing is already posted. Below is an excerpt in which he mentions fire funding.
$321 million for hazardous fuels reduction, which will allow the agency to mitigate wildfire risk on 3.8 million acres in high priority and high-risk areas. This investment builds on the hazardous fuels funding the Forest Service will receive through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2023 and supports the objectives of the agency’s 10-year wildfire crisis strategy.
$1.15 billion for Wildland Fire Management Salaries and Expenses to fund additional firefighters and firefighting support personnel and support this Administration’s direction that all firefighters receive a minimum wage of $15 per hour. This increased workforce capacity will enhance year-round fire response and hazardous fuels reduction activity and allow the Forest Service to continue important investments that support the health, well-being, and resilience of the agency’s wildland firefighting force.
$1.68 billion for National Forest System Salaries and Expenses. Funding will strengthen areas needed to support the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the agency’s 10-year wildfire crisis strategy, and the Great American Outdoors Act. This funding will also help the agency bolster capacity in critical non-fire programs, which have lost staffing in recent years, and thereby enhance social and economic benefits to the American public.
Personnel from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior testified Tuesday before a Congressional Committee
The standard line from the US Forest Service about the number of wildland firefighters in the agency has been 10,000 wildland firefighters nationwide, but in recent years they have been unable to fill all of their positions due to difficulties in recruitment and retention. The San Francisco Chronicle (subscription) reported that in 2021 the number stationed in California dropped from 5,000 in 2019 to 3,956, more than a 20 percent decline.
In a hearing today before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, the Forest Service said they believe they are turning that problem around.
Representative Katie Porter from California asked how many firefighters does the agency need to have. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry said their goal this year is 11,300. That would be 13 percent more than the maximum they have had in recent memory.
When Rep. Porter asked how many they have now, Ms. Hall-Rivera said she didn’t know because they are still hiring.
“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace [to meet that goal]. By all accounts that hiring event went very well. Importantly what we are seeing is a very high acceptance rate in our permanent and seasonal permanent firefighting positions, which is what we want. We want to be able to convert this workforce to have more or a larger proportion of it to be permanent and a smaller proportion of it be temporary… We think that we will be at the capacity we need at the Forest Service this year.”
“That’s really great to hear,” Rep. Porter said, “because as you know last year according to the National Federation of Federal Employees, about 30 percent of the federal hotshot crews that worked on the front lines of wildfires in California were understaffed. Last year the Forest Service had 60 fire engines in California alone that were idled because of understaffing. I’m very heartened to hear a concrete number, a concrete goal, for what full staffing looks like.”
Rep. Porter asked how much it costs to bring in firefighters from other fire departments when the Forest Service does not have adequate staffing for fire suppression. Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have those numbers, but would get back to the Representative. Firefighters from CAL FIRE and municipal fire departments make two to three times what federal wildland firefighters make and they get paid 24 hours a day, “portal to portal”, for weeks on large fires until they are back in their own station. Federal firefighters are usually limited to 16 hours a day, and are forced to take a 30 minute lunch break even when they are on the steep slope of a God-forsaken ridge breathing smoke miles from the nearest road.
Earlier Ms. Hall-Rivera said the Forest Service has lost 40 percent of their non-fire workforce. This reduction in personnel, some of whom were qualified to be assigned to a fire in addition to their regular duties, can increase the difficulty of staffing fires and other incidents.
Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission
Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico asked when members would be appointed to the new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, H.R.3684, signed by the President on November 15, 2021. The law required that the appointments were to be made by January 14, 2022. Their initial meeting was to be held no later than February 13, 2022.
Ms. Hall-Rivera said the announcement for applications closed last Friday after receiving more than 500 responses. The members will be selected “in a month or two,” she said.
Tamarack Fire and aggressive initial attack
Representative Tom McClintock of California, brought up the subject of the Tamarack Fire in California which was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.
“This is insane,” Rep. McCLintock said, referring to the management of the fire. “Please tell me that you are dropping that policy and you will be vigorously attacking fires on their initial discovery rather than waiting for them to become one of these massive conflagrations.”
“We put out 98 percent of fires on initial attack,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “The Tamarack Fire is one of those 2 percent that we were not able to do that because we were resource-limited in the country as a whole.”
“You deliberately sat on it,” Rep. McClintock said. “Can you assure me that henceforth upon discovery of a fire you will order an aggressive initial attack?”
“Yes, Congressman, that is what we do,” said Hall-Rivera.
Goals for fuel treatment
“While the Forest Service’s budget has more than doubled since 2014, the amount of hazardous fuels treatment has remained frustratingly stagnant, only addressing roughly two percent of their needs annually,” said Rep. Herrell. “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”
“The Infrastructure law was a significant step in the right direction in terms of wildland firefighter compensation, and once again I thank you for your work on that,” Ms. Hall-Rivera replied. “But we need to continue to work together to find a permanent solution to increasing our wildland firefighters’ pay and making other system changes that insure that we can continue to support our firefighters and insure that this is a career that others will pursue in the future.”
Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Ms. Hall-Rivera said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.
Staffing for the additional fuel management workload
Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”
After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service, glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.
I did not summarize every topic that came up in the hearing, but attempted to capture the most significant ones related to wildland fire. After reading through the above, I noticed a trend: PLANNING, and a lack thereof.
Failure to meet the deadlines required for the establishing the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.
Planning to rely on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan for fuel management.
The 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. “The strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.”
The Forest Service does not know if they have enough staffing to accomplish the new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation.
It reminds me of the effort by Congress to transfer seven C-130 aircraft to the Forest Service to be converted to air tankers.
On December 27, 2013, President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also supplied $130 million for the Air Force to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.
About 522 days later, on June 1, 2015 the FS distributed internally a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor operated venture (GO/CO). On that date the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel. The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned.”
“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”
The FS did not use the 522 days to plan for the absorption of the aircraft into the fleet.
They came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper:
This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).
Eventually, more than four years after the transfer and tens of millions had likely been spent on the refurbishment of the seven aircraft, the Forest Service decided they did not want the air tankers. Congress passed additional legislation to give the seven HC-130Hs to the state of California instead.
Senator Dianne Feinstein was adamant that the pay structure for federal wildland firefighters is not adequate in today’s job market
The pay of federal wildland firefighters and hazardous fuels treatments were two of the issues discussed Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The only witness was Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. The hearing was titled, Rethinking Resiliency: Budgeting for the Future of Forest Management.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said her main concern is the “salary situation.” She said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression pays their firefighters $70,000 and the “U.S. Forest Service pays $38,000.” She had a strong point but her information about the FS salary is misleading. Most FS firefighters start as a seasonal employee at the GS-3 level. If they worked year round, which most of them do not, they would earn $28,078 a year at $13.45 an hour. After working for five to ten years they might be able to obtain a permanent full time appointment. If they reached the GS-6 level, they could earn $39,311 a year as a trained, experienced, highly skilled mid-level firefighter — an employee highly valued by other organizations anxious to hire them at double the salary.
Senator Feinstein said the differential in pay between CAL FIRE and the FS “…is the problem. And the loss in fire is just tremendous. I think that we have to move some way in a bill to make that change.”
“State, local, and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year,” Chief Christiansen replied. “And their benefits are better. We have folks that are absolutely committed to the mission of the Forest Service, but at that wage, that gap in the wage, they’re going on to work for other entities. So we really appreciate working with you to bridge this gap and to discuss. We need more of a year-round workforce as well.”
“Well thank you Chief,” said Senator Feinstein. “Thank you very much for that because I’ve been around a long time, was a mayor for nine years of [San Francisco]. And I’ve never seen a pay differential this stark as the difference between federal firefighter pay and state firefighter pay. So the reason I’m here, is to say we need to move and do something about it. Let me ask another question. Do you have the mobility, Chief, to make the necessary moves to prevent this inequity from showing in actual firefighting?”
“Thank you,” Said the Chief. “We certainly can bring a strong voice to this problem, but we have to work across the Federal government with the Office of Personnel Management and of course, other agencies with federal wildland firefighters, the Department of the Interior being the largest. [Agriculture] Secretary Vilsack has made a commitment to bring leadership to this. And we really look forward to working with you here in Congress to address this issue.”
Senator Feinstein said she hoped the committee would work with her and others and “try to solve it.”
The Chief said that during the pandemic the FS continued hazardous fuels work, “…but we know it’s not enough. We need a paradigm shift under the President’s jobs plan. President Biden is calling on Congress to significantly invest in protection from extreme wildfire. After confronting record wildfires last year, we expect another long and arduous fire year in ’21. We are prepared, but we remain deeply concerned about the welfare and the pay of our thousands of firefighters. We’re grateful for your help in finding solutions that address pay equity, fatigue, and the mental wellbeing of our firefighters. Just this Monday, a Forest Service firefighter was seriously injured in New Mexico. He is a smoke jumper from Montana, and this demonstrates the seriousness of this business. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. As I know yours are as well. You know, our infrastructure needs are pressing as are the economic needs of Americans. When we improve the infrastructure of the National Forests by upgrading roads, trails, and recreation sites. It spurs job growth and boosts economies. Thanks to the Great American Outdoor Act, we expect to create an additional 4,400 jobs and contribute an estimated $420 million to the GDP annually.
Senator Merkley asked about a report required by law to have been submitted by March 27 to provide Congress an estimate of the federal investment required to treat and restore federal and non-federal acres classified as high risk for wildfire. Chief Christiansen blamed the delay on the Department of the Interior where it is “in its final clearance”. Senator Merkley emphasized that the subcommittee needs the data “to advance far more funds for forest treatments” and asked the Chief to be sure it is submitted by the end of the month.
The Senator mentioned there is a significant backlog of fuel reduction projects in Oregon and New Mexico. He asked the Chief, “What does it take to get these projects that have already cleared the environmental controls, underway. Is it a single limitation? Is it just money or is it anything else?”
After an extended answer from the Chief, Senator Merkley interrupted to say, “I’m going to have you shorten it a little bit there. I think your answer was essentially, ‘Yes, it’s funds’ “.