US Forest Service briefs firefighters on pay and new job classification

They could see a retroactive pay bump in June

USFS HQ Washington DC
The Washington, DC headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today in a live online presentation to their firefighting personnel, the U.S. Forest Service (FS) gave an update on the status of the changes to their pay that are required in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that was passed in October.

It was presented over the course of an hour by Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief for State & Private Forestry and Brian Rhodes, Program Manager for Firefighter Series and Pay, and Human Resources.

Temporary pay supplement

Ms. Hall-Rivera said the pay supplement authorized by the legislation will hopefully begin appearing in paychecks in June. It will increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less. There is a finite amount of funds appropriated for this increase, $480 million which also includes funding for a few other purposes, so unless and until additional dollars are authorized by Congress it is considered temporary. They are hoping to avoid employees receiving a pay increase, followed by a pay cut, and finally the permanent pay increase later when the new job series and pay structure is implemented. 

The calculation of the amount of each person’s supplement will not consider overtime — only base salary. A complicating factor is that the legislation restricts it to geographic areas in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a Federal wildland firefighter. In addition, decisions must be made about which positions will be affected.

“Our leadership intent is to have this applied as broadly as possible to as many firefighters as possible and to get it into paychecks hopefully in June, that is our goal,” said Ms. Hall-Rivera.

The FS is working with the Department of the Interior (DOI) and their four agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities to coordinate the identification of the geographic areas that will receive the pay supplement. It will be retroactive to the time the legislation was passed, which they have identified as October 1, 2021.

Different Firefighter job series and pay schedule 

The Office of Personnel Management is sticking to the timeline they established in January and expect to issue their policy on a new job classification for a Wildland Firefighter occupational series by the end of the month. The legislation set a due date of May 13, 2022. Because of the time crunch, there will be little if any opportunity for the FS or the DOI to review the OPM’s product, but the union will be consulted. The hope is that the transition into a different series, expected to be GS-456, will be complete by the end of 2022 or near the beginning of 2023. Decisions will have to be made about which positions will be offered the opportunity to be in the Wildland Firefighter series. 

Mr. Rhodes said moving to the series will likely include GS-462, possibly GS-401, and they will consider the GS-301 positions.

He said no one will be forced to move to the different series, but vacant and new positions will be in the Wildland Firefighter series. Firefighter retirement will not be affected by the transition.

The OPM allows agencies to request a special salary table. Ms. Hall-Rivera said that after all the requirements in the BIL are satisfied work will begin on assembling the data and recommendations of pay for the personnel in the Wildland Firefighter series. That is expected to begin in the late summer or fall. They will also request additional funding from Congress for the pay increase.

What will not be covered in the new pay structure

Mr. Rhodes said several issues were not authorized in the BIL and will not be covered in a new pay structure — portal to portal pay, funds to support of the cost of housing, and premium pay being included in calculation of retirement income.


Ms. Hall-Rivera began the presentation by recognizing that there has not been much information distributed to their 10,000+ firefighters about these pending changes, explaining that the BIL is complicated and they have been working hard to untangle its provisions.

“We were head down working and we didn’t pick our head up to share with all of you what was going on,” she said. “This is our opportunity to begin doing that more frequently…And I completely understand and acknowledge it is frustrating that [you may] wonder why it has taken so long. I know this impacts your choices about your career path. It impacts you and your family.”

Comment from the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

“While we are glad to finally see the OPM, USFS, and DOI agencies providing information on classification and pay, we are disappointed to see the OPM dusting off the 0456 series which was widely used in the 1970s/80s,” said Riva Duncan, Executive Secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “Going back is not a viable option for moving forward.  This is not a “new” series, but one that didn’t meet the needs of federal wildland firefighters previously when the USFS sought new classification.  Unless the OPM is making significant revisions to reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities of today’s wildland firefighters, and can adapt to the needs of both those with with and without  degrees/certificates, it will not work.”

Forest Service Deputy Chief lists her goals for Fire and Aviation Management

Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, State and Private Forestry, U.S. Forest Service
Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, State and Private Forestry, U.S. Forest Service. USFS photo.

In a May 5 post published on the U.S. Forest Service’s “Leadership Corner”, the person who oversees Fire and Aviation Management in the agency, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Jaeligh Hall-Rivera, laid out a list of improvements she wants to see for Forest Service firefighters. Here is a summary:

  • “Ensure our firefighters are paid equally for the difficult job they do”
  • “Increase our firefighting capacity, this year and beyond”
  • “We must do something about the critical affordable housing shortages”
  • “We must also build sustainable career paths for wildland firefighters”
  • “A permanent pay increase, a job series that recognizes the unique and hazardous work firefighters do, upward career mobility, a safe, harassment-free work environment and a resilient work-life balance”
  • “Bringing more women into the wildland fire workforce and removing obstacles to help them thrive there”
  • “A sustainable, long-term solution for increased pay”
  • “I am personally committed to making these changes”
  • “I will be hosting a ‘FAM to boots’ session where I can share our most recent information and progress on these efforts”

Near the end of the essay Ms. Hall-Rivera wrote, “Please be assured, we are fully backing all these changes to continue improving our wildland fire system.”

She linked to an update that was posted February 2 about the efforts toward addressing firefighter pay and classification, initiatives that are required by an act of Congress passed in 2021. The Office of Personnel Management ordered that the work on a new Wildland Firefighter occupational series be completed “by May.” The February update stated that concerning pay, the “Goal is to have increased payments into paychecks by this summer, either by implementing this provision or using the awards payments model employed last year if we can’t fully implement this provision in FY 22.”

Before a Congressional committee on April 5, Ms. Hall-Rivera testified that a firefighter hiring event “went very well” and that they were “on pace” to meet the hiring targets. It turns out that the event had not started yet.

Before a different Committee on May 5 her boss, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, testified that their goal is to hire 11,300 firefighters nationwide and the current level is at 10,200, or 90 percent. He said in some areas the agency has only reached 50 percent of their staffing goal.

In her May 5 post, Ms. Hall-Rivera addressed, to a degree, the conflicting testimonies:

The information on the status of our fire hiring events I used at that time left some wondering if we are up to speed here in Washington, DC. Let me update the record on the emerging picture from those hiring events. As of mid-April, we are at 90% of our planned 11,300 wildland firefighters (including those currently onboarding and offers pending).

Our Take

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from his book "The Little Prince"

Few details were offered about how, when, and by whom this long list of initiatives would be accomplished, other than the efforts toward a new Occupational Series and firefighter pay. Using phrases like, “We must do something about…” can lead the reader to presume that very little thought has gone toward that particular goal. Although “goal” may be too lofty a description. “Wish” might be more appropriate.

Having been involved in many meetings and planning sessions where objectives were clearly articulated, I know that little gets done unless:

  1. A person is appointed to lead the effort, and they are given the resources needed to get it done.
  2. A completion date is specified, to which they are held.

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

Forest Service facing difficulties hiring firefighters

McBride Fire
McBride Fire in southern New Mexico. From Melissa Gibbs KRQE video April 12, 2022.

When the US Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry testified before members of Congress on April 5 that a firefighter hiring event “went very well”, the event had not started yet.

Jaelith Hall-Rivera, US Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry
Jaelith Hall-Rivera, US Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, testified April 5 before a House Committee.

“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Jaelith Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace. 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.”

In an article published today, Brianna Sacks of BuzzFeed News reported that the hiring event actually began April 11, six days after Ms. Hall-Rivera’s testimony, and is scheduled to go through April 29.

Ms. Hall-Rivera’s statement was in response to a series of questions from Rep. Katie Porter from California. You can watch this exchange in the video of the hearing we posted April 5 as part of a summary of the testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. Rep. Porter’s excellent questions begin at 138:35.

Below are excerpts from the BuzzFeed article:

A Forest Service spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the deputy chief made an “error” because she “didn’t have all the information in front of her.”

“There are several hiring events throughout the year, and I think she was thinking of a different one in a different region,” the spokesperson said, but he did not provide specifics as to which one that might have been. The spokesperson also did not have hiring numbers that might back up Hall-Rivera’s assurances.

Interviews with firefighters in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and California, as well as internal communications, hiring data, org charts, and surveys from the nonprofit Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, also tell a different story.

For example, in a Feb. 15 meeting hosted and attended by senior Washington officials, fire directors from across the US shared their issues with hiring, according to meeting notes obtained by BuzzFeed News. In New Mexico, where fires are currently raging, leaders said multiple hotshot crews would not be fully staffed. In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, leaders said there is a “lack of candidates” and they are “unable to staff seven days in many places.” There is a “continued decline of folks to do the work.”

As California, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Colorado gear up for fire season, interviews with three Forest Service employees familiar with hiring say the situation is grim. Without a serious staffing push, engines will sit idle, helicopters won’t be able to fly daily, crews won’t be able to start the season on time, and those who have worked multiple seasons in the field aren’t sure how much more they can stretch themselves without falling apart, they said. The Thomson Reuters Foundation, which also recently investigated systemic staffing issues, highlighted retention issues due to pay and housing.

In parts of Montana and Idaho, which had 700 seasonal workers last year, only 460 have returned for this fire season, a source familiar with the numbers said. And after last year’s Fire Hire, California had filled only 56 of 781 open positions, according to data obtained by BuzzFeed News. As of April 8, two days before this year’s hiring push, California had more than 1,560 vacancies, according to a review of the state’s openings.

More and more articles like this are being published documenting the hiring and retention difficulties that face the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

From Thomson Reuter Foundation News, April 25, 2022:

An engine captain involved in temporary hiring in northern California indicated that almost all Forest Service forests in the area expected to have less than 65% of full staffing for firefighters this year, some below 50%, according to a federal firefighting source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Fundamentally, people don’t want to take jobs because they can’t find a place to stay,” [Kelly] Martin [of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters] said.

One female wildland firefighter – who lives out of her camper in California to save on rent – said proposals to increase base pay would not make up for the lack of an attractive career path for more experienced firefighters.

“Just raising the wages for those coming into fire is not going to be enough to keep people around,” she said, asking not to be named.

Forest Service expects to substantially increase the number of firefighters this year

Personnel from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior testified Tuesday before a Congressional Committee

Congressional hearing, April 5, 2022
Witnesses in the hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, April 5, 2022. L to R: Brian Ferebee (FS), Jaelith Hall-Rivera (FS), Jeff Rupert (Dept. of Interior).

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.

My take:

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.

  1. Failure to meet the deadlines required for the establishing the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.
  2. Planning to rely on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan for fuel management.
  3. The 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. “The strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.”
  4. 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.

Video of the hearing: