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Firefighters working for the federal government are the first line of defense against wildfires in national forests. But they are often paid a fraction of the wages received by their counterparts employed by state and local governments.
As wildfire seasons grow longer and the blazes more destructive, federal agencies are struggling to retain and recruit firefighters.
In the current wildfire season, in which more than 60 large fires are burning, the federal firefighting force is about 25% below normal levels, according to Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group.
Federal officials have acknowledged they are having trouble staffing crews during wildfire season and that wages have not kept up. At a Senate hearing in June, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified that the agency’s firefighters need a boost in pay, which currently ranges from $28,078 to $69,462 a year.
Some firefighters on the federal payroll, who spoke to Marketplace on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said they struggle to live on their wages.
One, who calculated that his annual earnings including overtime have never exceeded $45,000, said he lives so frugally that he avoids paying rent by living in a camper van.
“We all live supermodestly,” the firefighter said. “We’re about being able to do this job that we love, but also sustain life — especially if you have families.”
The financial stress, combined with longer fire seasons, have pushed many federal firefighters to leave the profession or seek better paychecks at local and state agencies.
Jonathon Golden was a member of one of the elite Forest Service units called Hotshots — groups of 20 to 22 firefighters who hike into wildfire areas and create fire lines. He quit after 11 years on the job.
Golden said his base wage, when he quit, was $18 an hour. That forced him to work more than 1,000 hours of overtime in his final wildfire season to make enough money to support his family, he said. In addition, Golden was a seasonal employee, like many other federal firefighters, so he received no pay for many months of the year.
“I think I just came home from an assignment and I just kind of had it, and … I left to go to grad school and to try to do something completely different,” said Golden, who now runs his own consulting firm.
Aaron Humphrey also quit after more than two decades as a Hotshot. He went to work for Pacific Gas and Electric, a private utility in California.
“Transitioning to this job, getting a salary that I can live off of and not have to stress on overtime and being gone all the time, it’s a huge, huge relief to my family and my life,” Humphrey said.
The Forest Service, which has the largest force among the handful of federal agencies that employ firefighters, said it has 9,000 permanent firefighters and firefighting managers on staff and expands that force with 6,000 temporary hires during wildfire season.
“With fire seasons turning into fire years, it is imperative to have a year-round workforce that is available to respond at any time, that is supported and equitably compensated, has a better work-life balance, and is available to undertake preventive actions like hazardous fuels management treatments during periods of low fire activity,” the agency said in a statement.
Current and former firefighters said housing is one of the biggest challenges to retention and recruitment because government housing rents have risen, pricing many out of one of the few affordable options in rural areas close to national forests.
“Prices went way up for government housing, which isn’t always the nicest place to live,” said Riva Duncan, who retired as a fire staff officer with the U.S. Forest Service in December.
Duncan’s job was to maintain firefighter staffing for the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon. But during the 2020 wildfire season, she said she was unable to maintain full staffing on the eight engines assigned to the forest.
“The goal is that every engine is available for seven days,” Duncan said. “If we can’t hire the full component of crew members that have the necessary qualifications … then that engine might only be effective five days.”
Duncan, a leading member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, said the staffing shortages around the country have worsened in the current wildfire season — as more experienced firefighters quit for better-paying positions and agencies struggle to recruit entry-level candidates who can get better wages in an economy that’s desperate for workers.
“I’m hearing there are engines that are parked because they can’t even get enough people to staff five days,” she said.
Chuck Sheley, of the National Smokejumper Association, said he is also hearing from firefighters concerned about low pay and inadequate benefits, such as health care and retirement savings.
Sheley said those issues are making federal firefighting a less attractive choice for younger recruits, who can find better wages at businesses in their own communities, such as fast-food shops.
“As a nation, we’ve been able to get by with the firefighters we had. But now we’re reaching a point where the demand for firefighters is not meeting what we get for recruits,” Sheley said.
Washington appears willing to act. Last month, President Joe Biden announced he is immediately raising base pay for federal firefighters from $13 to $15 an hour.
“But, a one-time boost is not enough. These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages,” Biden said, adding that the White House would work with Congress for a permanent fix.
Congress may act through the bipartisan infrastructure bill moving through the Senate. Lawmakers have added a provision to raise entry-level base pay for federal firefighters by $20,000 a year. If passed, that would amount to a 70% raise.
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