Pay cut may be coming for US Federal Wildland Firefighters

We’ve been dealing with poor air quality in the Northland for weeks now, as smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to drift South. And a looming September 30th deadline may mean Federal Wildland Firefighters could see a significant cut to their pay.

Temporary measures taken by the Biden administration last November are set to expire on September 30th, unless Congress takes steps to secure pay for firefighters moving forward. Stakeholders are pushing for a permanent increase in pay for federal firefighters.

“Wildland firefighters are the backbone of our ability to protect communities and vital infrastructure from wildfires,” said Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, of the Department of Agriculture. “The only way that we’re going to attract people to this challenging and hazardous work is to pay them fairly. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities. We are proposing a permanent base pay increase for all firefighters. These investments totaling $569 million for the Forest Service will help us ensure we can continue meeting involving mission demands as both frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfires are expected to increase.”

In testimony before members of Congress, U.S. Forest Service officials said that if Federal Firefighters take a pay cut, 30-50% of them could leave their jobs for higher-paying, private, state and local positions. And if that happens, officials say there may not be enough Federal Firefighters left to adequately staff fires.

Proposed pay increases aim to bring Federal Wildland Firefighter pay in line with their private and State counterparts. And stakeholders say; even if Congress can’t pass a pay increase, the government will still end up forking over hundreds of millions to hire private contractors to fight fires.

“We of course, depend on our cooperators and our contractors. They are an important part of our system,” said Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera. “But if we are not able to compensate our firefighters and they leave and go and work for those entities, the federal government is still going to be paying for that. We all cooperate together. But you know, it’s an expensive endeavor for the federal government. In a busy year for example, take 2021, the Forest Service paid over $470 million to state cooperators.”

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is a non-profit organization which promotes and advocates for Federal Wildland Fire personnel. Their mission–according to their website–is; to advocate for proper classification, pay, benefits and comprehensive well being.” [And to] “Educate the public, generate support and provide solutions to our federal representatives through policy reform.”

Riva Duncan, Vice President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters spent 31 years with the U.S. Forest Service and this is her 34th fire season.

“Federal Wildland Firefighters live and work in nearly every state in the U.S.,” said Duncan. “They can be dispatched to any fire in the U.S. and its territories at a moment’s notice. They are on the ‘frontlines’ of the wildfire crisis, risking their lives to protect public lands, communities and citizens. They are away from their families for weeks and months at a time. Every American taxpayer regardless of if you are experiencing wildfires in your own backyard, or breathing smoke from wildfire in other states or Canada should want to ensure that these brave women and men are paid adequately for the hard work they do and the sacrifices they make.”

In a quarterly-update for her organization, Duncan said in the last 30 years, her industry has come a long way, but there’s more work to do.

In a statement today John Winn, with the U.S. Forest Service highlighted the importance if securing permanent pay for Federal Firefighters in the face of a changing climate.

“With climate change fueling more severe wildfires, extending fire seasons into fire years, hiring and retaining the federal wildland firefighters needed to combat this growing challenge is more important than ever,” said Winn. “For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced these challenges while their pay has lagged their state, local and private counterparts in some areas of the U.S. Recognizing this, the Biden-Harris Administration took steps starting in 2021 to increase firefighter pay and to create new job classifications that recognize the unique duties wildland firefighters carry out. 

A petition created by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is being circulated to attempt to convince Congress to pass new legislation permanently setting Federal Wildland Firefighter pay, before the September 30th deadline.

Forest Service officials say the temporary pay increase passed last November has helped retain and recruit federal firefighters. And that’s why it’s crucial Congress passes a permanent increase. Under the new proposal an entry-level firefighter would see at least a 34% increase in their pay.