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Federal firefighters may soon face a pay cut

Savannah Maher Sep 27, 2023
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Firefighters douse a blaze during a California wildfire in 2018. Federal firefighters may soon face steep pay cuts as funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law runs out. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Federal firefighters may soon face a pay cut

Savannah Maher Sep 27, 2023
Heard on:
Firefighters douse a blaze during a California wildfire in 2018. Federal firefighters may soon face steep pay cuts as funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law runs out. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
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The Federal Wildland Firefighting workforce — made up of some 18,000 people — could be facing a big pay cut in the coming weeks. 

About a year ago, the bipartisan infrastructure law gave those workers a temporary raise of 50% or $20,000 (whichever was less), as a way to help the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture and other agencies hire and retain more firefighters.

Keeping those workers on has been really difficult over the past few years as pay stagnates, wildfire season gets longer, and wildfires themselves burn more intensely and destructively. 

But that temporary raise fund is running dry. The Forest Service said it will run out in October. 

While there’s bipartisan support in Congress to permanently prop up firefighter salaries, Congress is a little distracted right now. 

Pete Dutchick fights fire for the U.S. Forest Service. He could double his salary by moving to a state agency — that’s what a lot of his colleagues have been doing. 

But he loves his work. 

“The reality is though, as staffing levels continue to drop, it’s harder and harder to get all the work done that needs to be done,” he said.

Cardell Johnson looked at this issue for the Government Accountability Office. 

“Firefighters are taking more deployments,” he said. “Fires might burn longer, they might take a longer time to get put out.”

He said understaffing intensifies some of the working condition and work-life balance issues that make people want to quit in the first place. 

Kimiko Barrett, lead wildfire policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, said she expects many federal firefighters to move on rather than take a pay cut in the coming weeks. 

“And you’ll see at the same time, concurrently rising wildfire risks,” she said.

That’s because of the changing climate and underinvestment.

“Likely, the immediate federal response will be to direct what resources are available on suppression,” Barrett said.

That means suppression of fires that are already burning, rather than thinning forests and other badly needed fire mitigation. 

And Randy Erwin, president of the union that represents many federal firefighters, said the political back and forth is hard to take. 

“You know, it’s very demoralizing,” he said.

With a shutdown looming, he said firefighters who remain fear they’ll wind up continuing their dangerous work without pay, only to have their salaries slashed when a shutdown comes to an end. 

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