Forest Service: It is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage

The agency issues statement about compensation, recruitment, and retention for wildland firefighters

Firefighters on the Legion Fire in South Dakota
Firefighters on the Legion Fire in South Dakota, Dec. 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I was working on an article for Wildfire Today about the difficulties the federal land management agencies are having trying to recruit and retain firefighters while their employment packages pale in comparison to similar jobs in some state or municipal organizations. I sought out a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service (FS) in California, Jonathan Groveman who works out of their regional office, asking for specific numbers of firefighter positions in the state that can’t be filled.

About 20 hours after we last spoke, Mr. Groveman sent an email with a rather extraordinary official statement. There were no detailed numbers like I requested, but what was sent instead was six paragraphs that indicated that the FS, or at least Mr. Groveman, recognizes some of the issues that are beginning to seriously cripple the ability of the five federal land management agencies to protect the homeland from wildfires.

When Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 17 she squandered two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. It was not clear if the Chief selected that strategy because her chain of command in the Department of Agriculture and the White House demanded that she remain agnostic about adequate funding for those areas, or if she took it upon herself to remain meek, adopting a don’t-make-any-waves posture. If it was the latter, the Chief needs to find another job.

At that point it looked hopeless to expect the Forest Service to be proactive about requesting Congress to provide badly needed funding for protecting our homeland from fires.

It appears that Chief Christiansen will get an opportunity for a do-over on May 26 before the same subcommittee in a hearing titled, “Rethinking Resiliency: Budgeting for the Future of Forest Management.”

In order to solve a problem, first it must be identified — which is tough to do with one’s head buried in the sand.

Mr. Groveman’s statement identified some of the issues that are seriously degrading the effectiveness of federal wildland firefighting. Assuming it represents the stance of the agencies and the White House, the next step is for Senators and Congressmen to work with the agencies to make sure they have the tools needed to do their jobs.  Here are some of the highlights — quotes from the document. Following those, is the complete statement.

  • “Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.
  • “We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do
  • “This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage.
  • “In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.”

The full statement is below:

Maintaining our ability to hire and retain firefighters as we see the complexity of the firefighting environment grow exponentially, has been further complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.

We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do and the administration is focused on equity in all forms. These problems are not unique to the Forest Service and also apply to firefighters within the Department of the Interior.

This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage. Particularly in states like California we are seeing that federal wages for firefighters is about half of what they would get for similar jobs in state and private entities. In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.

We are working with OPM and OMB to evaluate options to modernize the firefighting workforce compensation structure, including job series, pay grade levels, and other changes.

In light of these challenges the Forest Service still maintains a robust and highly capable wildland fire workforce and will be able to meet the demands of what is expected to be another challenging fire year. We work with our federal, state, tribal, local and private partners to be sure we can access all available resources to respond to wildfires as needed.

The Forest Service is focused on creating a more modern firefighting workforce where we have specialized year round capability to respond to the wildfires conditions of not only today but into the future. This includes greater utilization of technology to enhance firefighter capability, effectiveness and safety.

Wildland firefighter speaks truth to Congressional power

“I have grown impatient with inaction”

Riva Duncan testifies fire Congressional hearing
Riva Duncan testifies remotely during Congressional hearing, April 29, 2021. Still image from live video.

In the oversight hearing today before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter spoke truth to power.

Riva Duncan, who recently retired from the Fire Staff Officer position on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, testified remotely about job classification, pay disparity, employee health and wellbeing, recruitment, size of the workforce, and fire seasons transforming into fire years.

You can watch a recording of the hearing at the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters website, or at the end of this article.

I have watched many Congressional hearings about wildland fire and the agencies that manage them, and this is the first time I can remember that a firefighter who had worked their way up from an entry level position and had not been tainted by serving time in the Washington Office, testified about firefighting conditions. In 2016 Kelly Martin, then Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, testified about sexual harassment, but she was not asked questions about pay, hiring, and retention.

Ms. Duncan, now the Executive Secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, submitted 13-pages of testimony, but the last portion of her five-minute opening oral remarks had a memorable impact on the politicians. Toward the end she choked up a little — you can probably guess which section provoked that response.

“I am not here to disparage the US Forest Service,” she said, bringing her formal remarks to a close. “These issues are larger than any one agency and will take complex, and expensive, solutions. It truly was my honor to serve the US Forest Service and the American people. I loved working in fire, but I love the people I worked with even more. I have grown weary of losing amazing friends and colleagues, and I have grown impatient with inaction. The US is burning, wildland firefighters are struggling, and some are even dying. The time for reform is now.  Thank you.”

Not only were her words powerful, but her delivery got the attention of the politicians — a category of humans not generally known for their compassion and empathy. During the rest of the hearing many of the Representatives used a little of their allotted time to tell her how much they appreciated her participation.

“I want to thank you for your testimony and your service, said Rep. Joe Neguse (CO), Chair of the Subcommittee. “It’s incredibly powerful and certainly resonated with me and every member of our committee on both sides of the aisle.”

In her written testimony Ms. Duncan said, “Our inability to hire and retain wildland firefighters has become readily apparent with record setting fire management vacancy rates through the federal service. Hiring managers are finding themselves unable to fill empty positions, and lacking compensation is a primary contributing factor.”

The hearing was titled, Wildfire in a Warming World: Opportunities to Improve Community Collaboration, Climate Resilience, and Workforce Capacity.

Chairperson Neguse began the hearing by proposing a new “Climate Corps to address immediate restoration needs and create rural jobs… a pipeline for careers in land management and conservation.”

“We need more well paid, permanent opportunities to grow the federal land management workforce,” the Chairperson continued. “As the budget has shifted toward wildfire suppression, there has been a corresponding reduction in non-fire personnel costing us land managers, biologists, other scientists with the expertise for planning for fire to improve the resiliency of the landscape in the first place… While the fire funding fix ended the practice of fire borrowing it did virtually nothing to improve the health care, pay, or general well being of those on the front line of these climate-driven disasters — our Federal wildland firefighters.”

Rashida Tlaib (MI) asked about pay and transitioning to a full time workforce.

Ms. Duncan replied in part, “We can’t fix anything around the fire workforce without adequate pay, a decent living wage.” Later she talked about how funding has been cut across the Forest Service, not just in fire.

Rep. Tlaib said, “I truly believe it is unacceptable that we are asking Federal wildland firefighters to protect the vast territories for just pennies on the dollar and I’m hoping that we can take action in this committee to raise pay and benefits to support our firefighters as the professionals that they are.”

One Representative has a wildland fire background

“I know wildland firefighting well, said Rep. Teresa Fernandez (NM). “I was the first young woman hired to assist the State of New Mexico Forest Service during fire season. All five of my brothers fought forest fires. As noted earlier there is no such thing as fire season anymore.”

When Rep. Fernandez asked what Congress can do to help, Ms. Duncan did not pull any punches and laid the responsibility where it rightly lies– with the people she was testifying to and their colleagues:

“We really need legislators like you all and the administration to take the lead to pass real meaningful reform to make these agencies work with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget to work very directly and quickly to move forward with a new [job] series and then tie additional pay to that,” Ms Ducan said. “I think most people would be shocked to know an entry level wildland firefighter makes less than $14 an hour. That’s embarrassing and it’s amazing what these people, who risk their lives, make for a living. It’s a travesty.”

Why would anyone want to be a Federal wildland firefighter?

Rep. Katie Porter (CA) asked Ms. Duncan: “Why would anyone want to be a Federal firefighter and get paid $13.45, below what we have been pressing for as the minimum wage for jobs that don’t require the kind of training and risk to your person? Why would anyone become a federal firefighter instead of a state firefighter where the pay is nearly double?”

“That’s the million-dollar question and we’re struggling to hire people now into those entry level positions”, Ms. Duncan replied. “We’re struggling to staff our engines and our crews because of that. For some of them it’s a summer job, to put themselves through college. They’ve grown up in a community where there is a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office, so it’s an easy jump for them to get into that. But they get bit by the fire bug, they love the career, and then find themselves making it difficult to meet financial goals.”

“Let’s get the classification going”

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, chair of the full Natural Resources Committee said to Ms. Duncan, “We [have been] working on legislation in a couple of Congresses now on reclassifying our Forestry Technicians into Wildland Firefighters… Let’s get some more folks on board and get it through this time. Let’s get the classification going and then we can start remedying the pay schedule as well, too. So I think, one step at a time around here.”

After talking about efficiencies in the federal agencies, he told Ms. Duncan, “Please contact our office with ideas. We’re just trying to find ways to move more effectively within the law or change the law where needed. Because we want to be streamlined in what needs to be done.

Other topics

Of course it was not all about firefighters. Courtney Schultz, an Associate Professor for Forest and Natural Resource Policy told the committee, “In addition to supporting agency research, Congress should consider  restoring full funding for the Joint Fire Science Program, the biggest and most effective program that addresses agencies’ priorities for fire research.”

Later Ms. Schultz said capacity is the greatest barrier to making progress in fuel management.

Several of the Representatives mentioned reducing or eliminating regulations to make conducting projects easier.

Should local government or industry manage National Forests?

Rep. Tom Tiffany (WI) said we have too much preservation: “I think we have a fundamental question here between management and preservation and the west has suffered under preservation for about the last three decades.”

He asked one of the other panelists, California rancher Dave Daley, about local management of National Forests — “Would local government or industry be more successful in managing these wildfire risks and just managing the resources generally?”

Mr. Daley talked about the Good Neighbor Authority which allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with state agencies to do forest management work on National Forests, saying it has been used in California.

Rep. Tom McClintock (CA) used all of his allotted time to talk about the benefits of logging. He did not ask any questions.

Rep. Blake Moore (UT) emphasized the importance of post-fire management.

The video of the hearing below should be cued up to begin about 10 seconds before Ms. Duncan’s opening remarks. If it does not start there, you can skip to 36:00.

Former Forest Service Fire Staff Officer to testify before Congress

Investing to increase the capacity of the federal workforce to plan for and respond to wildfire

Committee hearing April 29 fire wildfire

Riva Duncan, now retired from the Fire Staff Officer position on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, is scheduled to testify before Congress Thursday April 29.

The House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, led by Chair Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), will host an oversight hearing titled Wildfire in a Warming World: Opportunities to Improve Community Collaboration, Climate Resilience, and Workforce Capacity.

The Subcommittee describes one of the topics of the hearing:

Congress and the Biden administration have an opportunity to better incorporate climate change into federal land and wildfire policies by protecting naturally resilient landscapes, prioritizing funding for community collaboration and protection, and investing to increase the capacity of the federal workforce to plan for and respond to wildfire.

Ms. Duncan is now the Executive Secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

Other expected witnesses:

  • Courtney Schultz, Associate Professor of Forest & Natural Resource Policy, Director of the Public Lands Policy Group at CSU, Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, Colorado State University.
  • Beverly Law, Professor Emeritus, Global Change Biology & Terrestrial Systems Science, Oregon State University
  • Minority witness to be announced


1 p.m. EDT, Thursday April 29

Written testimony:

Written testimony from the witnesses will be posted at the Committee’s website shortly before the hearing begins. Ms. Duncan’s is 13 pages long.

How to watch live:

You can watch it right here. When the hearing begins, click on the Play button on the YouTube screen below.

After the hearing is over, it should be possible to replay it above, or on YouTube.

Administration requests 2% to 5% increases in fire budgets

Large cuts in research, and land management agencies in the Department of the Interior could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20% next fiscal year

ignite Trout Springs prescribed fire
A firefighter ignites the Trout Springs prescribed fire in Southwest Idaho. BLM photo.

(UPDATED at 11:02 am MST Feb. 11, 2020)

The administration has released its proposed budgets for fiscal year 2021 which begins October 1. If approved by Congress exactly as written, which is unlikely, the wildland fire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior would increase. The budget also calls for large reductions in research and the closure of two Forest Service Research Stations which would eliminate 287 positions.

Combined, the DOI agencies’ fire budgets would increase by 5%, while the FS fire budget could see a 2% bump.

The overall budget for the FS would remain about the same as this fiscal year, but the DOI agencies could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20%. Below are the proposed changes in the total budgets (first) and full time equivalent staff years (second) for the FS and DOI agencies:

  • National Park Service: -14%, -5%
  • Fish & Wildlife Service: -3%, -0.4%
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs: -10%, -10%
  • Bureau of Land Management: -20%, +3%
  • Forest Service: 0%, -1.5%

These numbers are what the departments and agencies are suggesting for FY 2021 with the approval or at the direction of the White House. As the budget goes through the appropriation process it will change. But as Congress continues to turn over more of their authority to the President, we may see fewer changes this time.

You can read the FY 2021 Budget Briefs by the two Departments. “Brief” may not be the most accurate choice of words, with the DOI document reaching 237 pages and the Department of Agriculture’s totaling 112 pages.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 provided new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning this year, FY 2020 and continuing through 2027, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when Suppression funding has been exhausted. This budget authority is $2.35 billion in 2021 (of which $2.04 billion is allocated to the Forest Service) and increases by $100 million each year through 2027. In a busy fire year this will reduce the “borrowing” of funds from non-fire programs, and make fire programs more self-sufficient.

U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021
U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

Both budget documents mention fuel management, active forest management, and timber salvage many times, reflecting what is often heard from White House personnel.

The Trump administration wants to close two research facilities, the Pacific Southwest Research Station (-$18.5 million) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (-$2.5 million). These cuts would eliminate 287 staff years. These closures would require the use of reduction in force authority, voluntary early retirement authority, and voluntary separation incentive authority. In addition the agency would eliminate recreation research (-$8.5 million) and wildlife and fish research (-$22.5 million).

The administration also wants to cut Forest and Rangeland Research by $55 million (18%) and State and Private Forestry by $129 million (37%). The FS description of State and Private Forestry: “provides technical and financial assistance to landowners and resource managers to help sustain the nation’s forests and grasslands, protect communities from wildland fire and restore fire-adapted ecosystems.”

A decrease of $8,000,000 would affect research in forest and grassland health, forest soils, air quality, hydrology, silviculture, and forest ecology, as well as in applied science to improve forest conditions, forest inventory and trend analysis, and wood product and market innovations.

The Joint Fire Science Program which has been zeroed out in the budget recommendations in the two previous years, but later funded by Congress, is listed to receive $3 million, which would be the same as it actually received in FY 2020.

The DOI has a $28 million “Plan to Transform the Firefighting Workforce,” a $28.0 million investment to hire more full-time professionals. The budget will also enable Interior to extend the duration of temporary hires and career seasonals as the program seeks administrative authority to extend the duration of temporary hires. Here is an excerpt from the budget proposal:

Interior’s ability to recruit and train full-time fire personnel has steadily declined, leaving the program excessively dependent on temporary personnel and contractors, a workforce model incompatible with a fire season that has now become a fire year, with larger, costlier, and more complex fires. The requested funding will strengthen DOI’s ability to maintain its initial-attack success rate and provide effective wildfire response throughout the fire year.

The FS, which contracts for all large air tankers, very large air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters, only mentioned aviation very briefly in the document, saying they will “…continue to right-size its aviation assets, evaluating the best mix of asset types and ownership models to provide the necessary aviation capability.” No details were given about the number or types of aircraft they plan to use for homeland security — fighting fires. In recent years, the meaningless term “right-size” has been synonymous with down-size.

Another document, FY 2021 Budget Justification, provides more details about aviation. On page 18 it indicates there were 18 Next Generation Air Tankers in FY 2020. But in the middle of the fire season and three weeks before the end of the fiscal year there were only 13 on exclusive use contracts. Occasionally additional Call When Needed air tankers were activated. On page 93 the Justification says the “robust aviation program” will include “up to 18 exclusive use air tankers”.  The “up to” modifier allows a great deal of obfuscation, again.

As this is written, there are only 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. It has been 499 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for another round of Next Gen air tankers Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required by February 14, 2019.

Having only 11 to 13 large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts is far fewer than is needed.

In some of the past Congressional budget hearings occasionally a Congressman or Senator has asked pointed questions about the fire budget, but only rarely are followup questions asked after the agency person gives a vague response.

DOI fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed Department of the Interior budget for Fiscal Year 2021.
Forest Service fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed U.S. Forest Service budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

This article was edited Feb. 11, 2020 to include more details about aviation and cuts to research noted in the Budget Justification document.

Senate holds hearing about powerline-caused wildfires

PG&E CEO says preemptive power shut offs during periods of high fire danger in California are likely to continue “for some period of time”

Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019
Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019. L to R: Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M)

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability, efforts to mitigate wildfire risk, and how to increase grid resiliency.

The five witnesses at the hearing were Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), and Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M).

The Senators and witnesses talked about Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy following the fires caused by their system, the future of preemptive power shutoffs during periods of high fire danger, and two new advances in technology that could help prevent some fires that are caused by power lines.

Dr. B. Don Russel, a professor at Texas A & M, told the committee about distribution fault anticipation technology developed at his university that uses intelligent algorithms to continually monitor electric circuits to detect the very earliest stages of failing devices and missed operations. The concept is simple, he said.  You find and fix it before the catastrophic failure causes a fire or an outage.  Dr.  Russel repeatedly advocated the adoption of this system.

San Diego Gas and Electric’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

Hearing Senate power line fires
Screenshot from the video.

Bill Johnson became the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric about 8 months ago about the time the company began going into bankruptcy. Senator Murkowski asked him how much longer residents in California would continue to be affected by the electricity being shut off during periods of high fire danger.

Mr. Johnson said San Diego Gas & Electric is still doing Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) in Southern California during periods of high fire danger 12 years after their power lines started multiple large fires in 2007, but the shutoffs are “surgical” and very localized. He said “[I]n Northern California it would take us probably five years to get to the point where we can largely eliminate this tool… So I think over the next couple of years you’ll see a progression of shorter, fewer PSPS events. But the climate change and the weather change is dramatic enough that I don’t think we will see the end of it for some period of time.”

Dr. Michael Wara discussed the effect of PSPS on residents:

The use of PSPSs has both prevented wildfire and caused widespread disruption to families and businesses, especially in Northern California. PSPS events, though they do dramatically improve safety, are likely very costly to the health of the economy, especially in smaller communities. My best estimate, using the Interruption Cost Estimator tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory indicates that PG&E PSPS events in 2019 cost customers more than $10 billion – that’s 0.3% of gross state product or 10% of overall economic growth this year in California.

In October we wrote about the effects of PSPSs on California residents.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Johnson’s prepared testimony about PG&E:

PG&E is deeply sorry for the role our equipment had in those fires and the losses that occurred because of them. And we’re taking action to prevent it ever happening again.

And today we’re taking that work a step further by increasing vegetation management in the high risk areas, incorporating analytical and predictive capabilities, and expanding the scope and intrusiveness of our inspection processes.

We deployed 600 weather stations and 130 high resolution cameras across our  service areas to bolster situational awareness and emergency response. We’re using satellite data and modeling techniques to predict wildfire spread and behavior. And we’re hardening our system in those areas where the fire threat is highest by installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered line, as well as undergrounding.

And this year we took the unprecedented step of intentionally turning off the power for safety during a string of severe wind events where we saw up to 100  mile an hour winds on shore in Northern California. And this decision affected millions of our customers,  caused them disruption and hardship even if it succeeded in protecting human life.

We are operating on all fronts to make the system safer and more resilient.

You can watch a video of the entire hearing. It is one hour and 35 minutes, not counting the wait for it to begin at 17:57.

Forest Service Chief testifies about proposed budget for next fiscal year

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen budget FY2020
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified about the White House’s proposed budget for FY2020 on May 15, 2019.

A Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, held a hearing May 15 to receive testimony from Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, about the administration’s proposed budget for next year, FY2020. In response to some of the questions related to recommended cuts by the White House, the Chief politely mentioned the fact that the administration ordered an overall five percent cut in the Forest Service budget.

One of the first topics of discussion were the large reductions in two programs. This fiscal year the Volunteer Fire Assistance program was funded at $11 million and State Fire Assistance program at $66 million. These programs provide assistance to states and local fire departments for wildland fire prevention, detection, and suppression. In Fiscal Year 2019, the programs were funded at $17 million and $81 million respectively.

I made two of the three clips below to highlight the sections when the committee was discussing fire-related issues. In the first one Chief Christiansen is asked to defend the cuts in the Volunteer Fire Assistance and State Fire Assistance programs.

In the next Clip Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asks Forest Service Chief Christiansen if the proposed funding amounts for next fiscal year can help restore forests and reduce the need for fire suppression.

Senator Steve Daines of Montana asks Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen if more fuel breaks should be constructed along roads.

In an April 9 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee other issues were discussed about funding for next fiscal year.