GAO reports on barriers to recruitment and retention of federal wildland firefighters

Silver City Hotshots
Silver City Hotshots conduct firing operations along Hwy 518 west of Holman during night shift for the Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, 2022. Photo by Santa Fe National Forest.

Today the Government Accountability Office released a report about the difficulties the federal agencies are having recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters.

Congress requested the report, but apparently did not ask for recommendations. The 41-page document identifies numerous issues that adversely affect recruitment and retention, most of which are already well known to the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service,  Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Barriers To firefighter R&R OPM
From the November 17, 2022 GAO report.

The report goes into detail about each of the major challenges, after receiving input from officials in the five agencies and a sample of 16 nonfederal stakeholders—including nongovernmental organizations representing active and retired federal firefighters and other organizations involved in firefighting issues, such as the National Association of State Foresters and the Western Governors’ Association.

Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.

Some of the efforts being taken to improve hiring and retention are mentioned, including addressing pay, and offering slightly more time at home between fire assignments.

But much remains to be done, especially towards pay and a new Wildland Firefighter job series, which the five agencies have made very little progress developing.

Number of federal wildland firefighters by agency
Number of federal wildland firefighters by agency, from Nov. 17, 2022 GAO report.

Download the 41-page GAO report.

Legislation update: bills introduced to retain Giant Sequoias and wildland firefighters

burned Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP, November, 2021. NPS photo by Daniel Jeffcoach.

At Wildfire Today we don’t get too excited about proposed legislation because most of it is introduced, sent to a committee, and is never seen again. But pending, there are two that will interest land managers and wildland firefighters and may have a better than 50/50 chance of passing.

Save Our Sequoias

Today House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield-23) and co-author House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced the Save Our Sequoias (SOS) act.

These trees that can live for up to 3,000 years need protection. This should include actively managing and reducing the surrounding hazardous fuels. In addition, when firefighting resources are scarce, which seems to be the new normal, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups need to consider the irreplaceable value of these iconic groves when allocating personnel and equipment for going fires. Some may say these behemoths are at least, if not more, valuable than man-made structures that also may need protection from nearby fires.

Do we need a new paradigm for protecting iconic groves of remaining giant sequoias?

Preliminary surveys found that in a two year period, 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle FireEarly estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years.

At this rate, with this climate, we could lose the rest of these massive trees in just a few years.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The darker green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

Please watch this video to see how urgent the issue is.

The film was produced by Kyle Dickman and the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District thanks to a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board’s Forest conservation Program.

Despite the looming threat to the remaining Giant Sequoias, federal land managers have not been able to increase the pace and scale of treatments necessary to restore Giant Sequoia resiliency to wildfires, insects, and drought. At its current pace, it would take the U.S. Forest Service approximately 52 years to treat just their 19 highest priority Giant Sequoia groves at high-risk of experiencing devastating wildfires. Without urgent action, we are at risk of losing our iconic trees in the next several years. Accelerating scientific forest management practices will not only improve the health and resiliency of these thousand-year-old trees but also enhance air and water quality and protect critical habitat for important species like the Pacific Fisher.

The SOS Act will provide land managers with the emergency tools and resources needed to save these remaining ancient wonders from the unprecedented peril threatening their long-term survival. The bill would:

  • Enhance coordination between federal, state, tribal and local land managers through shared stewardship agreements and the codification of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, a partnership between the current Giant Sequoia managers.
  • Create a Giant Sequoia Health and Resiliency Assessment to prioritize wildfire risk reduction treatments in the highest-risk groves and track the progress of scientific forest management activities.
  • Declare an emergency to streamline and expedite environmental reviews and consultations while maintaining robust scientific analysis.
  • Provide new authority to the National Park Foundation and National Forest Foundation to accept private donations to facilitate Giant Sequoia restoration and resiliency.
  • Establish a comprehensive reforestation strategy to regenerate Giant Sequoias in areas destroyed by recent catastrophic wildfires.

Neither the text or a summary of the bill, H.R.8168, is available, but on the day it was introduced listed 26 cosponsors — 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

$1,000 Recruitment or Retention bonus for wildland firefighters

An amendment has been added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2023, H.R.7900, which would pay a recruitment or retention bonus of not less than $1,000 to Federal wildland firefighters. The minimum amount would be increased each year according to the Consumer Price Index. It would be available once a year to any primary or secondary firefighter after successfully completing the Work Capacity Test.

‘‘Federal wildland firefighter’’ is defined as “any temporary, seasonal, or permanent position at the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior that maintains group, emergency incident management, or fire qualifications, as established annually by the Standards for Wildland Fire Position Qualifications published by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and primarily engages in or supports wildland fire management activities, including forestry and rangeland technicians and positions concerning aviation, engineering heavy equipment operations, or fire and fuels management.”

It does not appropriate any additional funding to pay the bonuses, but the dollars could most likely come from the salaries from unfilled positions.

The NDAA is far from being passed, but this is a high priority piece of legislation which is sometimes used as a vehicle for slipping in unrelated bills. The 2014 NDAA, for example, included authorization and $130 million to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the US Forest Service to be used as air tankers. But that’s a long, sad, story with a couple of unexpected twists. (Unless there are still more delays, one or more may be actually flying over fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, not the Forest Service, in 2023.)

A correction was made to the dates in which nearly 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years.

CBS probes recruiting and retention problems in the US Forest Service

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Jay Walter.

Saturday morning CBS broadcast an 8-minute piece on national TV that laid out some of the issues causing the recruitment and retention issues for wildland firefighters in the federal land management organizations. They interviewed several very experienced firefighters including some who resigned. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was confronted about his statement before a Congressional Committee that 90 percent of firefighting positions were filled. It turns out he was assuming that 100 percent of the job offers were accepted, which was not accurate.

Dozens of lawmakers sign letter supporting an increase in pay for federal firefighters

In 2021 40% of the requests for hand crews and 29% of the requests for engines were unfilled

U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of  Agriculture and the Interior.

It noted that years of low pay and other issues “have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce.” Last year 1,858 (40 percent) of the orders for hand crews were unfilled, and 1,853 (29 percent) of orders for engines were unfilled. In addition, the number of cancelled orders were 32 percent of crew orders and 22 percent of engine orders. There can be multiple reasons why orders are cancelled, but they can include the order sat unfilled and the requesting unit gave up, or finally the need no longer existed. The number of orders actually filled in 2021 were 27 percent for crews and 49 percent for engines.

“In one state, the U.S. Forest Service had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such shortages exist throughout the West heading into the 2022 fire season, with officials estimating staffing will be below 75% in some regions. This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable. ”

The lawmakers urged the OPM to use their authority for establishing special pay rates when staffing problems are caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, remoteness of the location involved, or the undesirability of the working conditions.

One of the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year required the two Departments and the OPM to establish a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series. The lawmakers warned yesterday that “a new series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins.”

The letter linked the lack of “portal-to-portal” pay with recruitment and retention difficulties:

“Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.”

“The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service,” the letter from the 28 Senators and Representatives said. “This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.”

Opinion: Rebuttal to Forest Service Deputy Chief’s statement

Firefighter with chainsaw
Firefighter with chainsaw. NWCG photo.

(Editor’s note: this was written by a person who asked to remain anonymous.)

After reading the press release from Jaelith Hall-Rivera, I felt a need to reply. And I want to thank Wildfire Today for running my opinion here.

Jaelith Hall-Rivera is the Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, and her boss is the Chief of the US Forest Service, Randy Moore. Jaelith’s department is Fire and Aviation Management, which houses the wildfire programs that firefighters work. There is no excuse for her testimony to differ from her bosses testimony, yet that is exactly what happened. It’s almost as if Jaelith’s press release came out before Chief Moore testified the previous day in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee. While Jaelith assured California representatives that they were on pace to have full staffing in California, just 30 days later Chief Moore testified that California, Oregon and Washington may be 50% staffed, something Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called, “a scary situation.”

Multiple articles have been published since Jaelith’s testimony on April 5th, pointing out that she falsely painted a rosy picture to legislators when the situation was dire. Read excellent articles about the testimony from NBC News, Thomson Reuters and BuzzFeed, and listen to the audio of an NPR interview with the BuzzFeed reporter.

Watch all the testimonies from April 5th, to April 27th, to May 4th and see how they change.

Jaelith testified on April 5th that their goal for staffing was 11,300 wildland firefighters, stating “and that is an increase.” But looking at a memo from Jaelith last fall, she claims that the USFS provided bonuses to 11,300 wildland firefighters (GS3-9 only) last year. So even if they are at 90% of that now, then that represents a 10% LOSS at minimum. Something is wrong here: either Jaelith lied about the numbers, or the USFS sent bonuses to a lot of people last year that should not have received them. Either way, it doesn’t instill confidence in the Forest Service Management.

There is a lie somewhere, and the misrepresentation to Representative Porter is infuriating for a workforce. Claiming we are on pace to be fully staffed when the spring fire hire event had not even started is misrepresenting the truth, at best. Especially when the same Fire Hire event in 2021 only netted an additional 56 hires. Why would this year be any different when the work environment and pay have continued to devolve?

Finally, Randy Moore decided to do some damage control and admit that although they were at 90% nationally, in some areas such as California, Oregon and Washington, staffing was as low as 50%. Again, that’s a shocking statement, but the numbers still don’t add up.

California makes up about 50% of the USFS firefighting workforce, so if they are near 50%, as well as Oregon and Washington, then how can we realistically be above 60-75% staffing nationally? This is 4th grade math: averages.

As a workforce, we simply want truth and transparency. That’s really the minimum. There can’t be that many FMOs in the USFS. Tell each of them to spend 30 minutes entering in the data from their district so we know exactly what positions are vacant. And make this database public and searchable. This database would take a GS6 a day or two to complete, and another 30-60 minutes for each FMO to fill out. Until this project is completed, we can assume the USFS either has no idea what their staffing level is, or they are lying about it.

I want to offer solutions whenever I offer criticism, so here are a few more:

1. Explain very clearly what the holdup is with the funded infrastructure pay raises, and what your plan is for payments including backpay as stated by law.

2. Explain your goal for what a career ladder looks like, even if it doesn’t become reality. Will we be able to have a living wage? Or should we get out now?

3. Start showing some receipts. Show you care. Why are NFFE and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters lobbying the Secretary of Labor instead of our own agency? Why are senators asking for OWCP reforms instead of our own agency? My friend was seriously injured and the USFS told him to call a charity. Is that acceptable to those in the Washington Office?

4. Rebuild the credibility of the USFS Washington Office by including an average employee (GS5-7) on all planning and workforce related meetings. Allow them to represent the workforce, and to the workforce. This would be a detail assignment

5. Explain exactly how we can increase not only our female participation in the workforce (6% of Fire workforce), but other minorities as well as LGBTQ individuals and what actionable items are happening now to make that happen.

6. Credibility only comes with transparency. Our workforce has never been more united and connected through shared struggle and technology. We have more knowledge of the situation than our predecessors and can see through the misinformation and deceit. We will not sit by idly or submit to threats from the DC office. Accountability, authenticity and transparency are not optional anymore.

I understand that the USFS did not ask for these new reforms in classification and pay, but they are here now, and our workforce needs them. But not just firefighters, the whole USFS workforce needs to be brought into the modern federal workforce that exists seemingly in every other agency.

I am optimistic that better times are ahead, but our leadership needs to show their hand a bit more, and offer some hope and motivation for those of us that are putting our physical and mental health on the line every single day for our employer and our country.

Analysis finds that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most Western counties

Firefighters on the Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon Fire
Firefighters on the Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon Fire May, 2022. Photo by Rickie Cooper, Security Fire Protection District, Colorado.

An analysis of their pay and costs of living found that federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most counties in the Western United States. The study was conducted by a seasonal wildland firefighter with a background in government budgeting and financing who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy. It can shed light on some of the reasons firefighters are leaving the federal agencies in large numbers and why Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said last week that only 50 percent of Forest Service firefighter positions are filled in some Western areas.

The analysis for GS03 through GS09 firefighters assumed that they work 680 hours of overtime each year, which in a six-month fire season works out to 26 overtime hours each week. It is not unusual for them to work more than 1,000 O/T hours in what has become a normal year, but it can be much less in a very slow fire year. Working extremely long hours away from home with few days off is another reason why firefighters are getting burned out, suicide rates are very high, and family life is challenging.

If the analysis only considered base salary with no overtime, it is likely that the results would have been far different.

A county was considered affordable if it fell within what was described as the common “50-30-20” personal budgeting strategy. This strategy says that 50 percent of someone’s income should be spent on necessities, 30 percent on non-essential purchases, and 20 percent on savings / retirement.

Below are the first five paragraphs of the three-page analysis. You can download the full Microsoft Word document here.


Advocacy groups like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and National Federation of Federal Employees have spent the last several years highlighting the pay and retention issues facing the wildland firefighting workforce. These efforts were successful when a roughly 50 percent pay increase for federal wildland firefighters was included in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure bill.

However, federal wildland firefighters have yet to see this money hit their paychecks. One reason for this delay is that the bill included language that the pay increase would only apply to “difficult to recruit / retain” locations. Although Congress intended this pay increase to apply to every wildland firefighter, there are reports that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior are looking for a “data-based” justification that may cut some wildland firefighters out of the intended raise. The U.S. Forest Service reported they are conducting “initial analysis comparing average federal and state wages and house purchasing power for firefighters (delineated to common wildland fire geographic areas) … to determine a ‘specified geographic area that is difficult to recruit or retain.’”

This analysis [conducted by the firefighter] compared the salaries of the 2022 GS03 to GS09 pay rates to three cost of living factors: the price of a 1 bedroom rental, monthly food costs, and the total monthly costs of owning a car. Since wildland firefighters rely heavily on overtime and hazard pay, this analysis assumed a firefighter works a six-month season with about 680 hours of overtime but 0 hours of hazard pay. Counties were determined to be affordable if less than 50 percent of salaries went to cost of living. Healthcare, childcare, utility, and retirement costs were not included in this analysis. See end of report for details on methodology.


This analysis found that the average cost of living in western counties was $2304 a month. The most expensive county with significant federal public lands presence was Skamania County, just northeast of Portland, Oregon at $3137 a month (Gifford-Pinchot National Forest). Sierra County, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico (Gila National Forest) was the least expensive at $1742 a month.

The majority of Western counties were not determined to be affordable on a GS03-GS09 salary, since living expenses far exceeded 50 percent of wildland firefighter salaries. The following table shows what percent of income a federal wildland firefighter at different GS levels would expect to spend on basic needs across the Western U.S.