President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced one-time pay raises for some federal wildland firefighters to ensure they earn at least $15 per hour this year. Permanent firefighters working on the frontlines will get an up to 10% retention bonus. Temporary workers who commit to staying on all season will get $1,000.
“Last week I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour,” Biden said, talking to reporters during a wildfire meeting with Western governors. “Come on, man. This is—that’s unacceptable to me.”
Biden said he doesn’t think the incentives go far enough. “We’re going to work with Congress … to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits and their work-life balance,” he said.
Federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters in part because of low pay and long hours. The situation is particularly challenging in California, where federal firefighters are leaving for better-paying firefighting jobs with the state, local fire departments and utility companies such as PG&E.
Short-staffing could make it harder to suppress fires, particularly in the West, where fire seasons are getting longer and blazes are growing more dangerous because of climate change and overgrown forests. Heat waves and drought have heightened wildfire risk in the region this year.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said during Wednesday’s meeting that policymakers need to change how they manage forests and fight fires, including by investing in firefighters. “We’ve got to pay our firefighters federally more, because we don’t have enough firefighters, period, full-stop,” he said.
The Biden administration also has given federal agencies permission to employ seasonal firefighters for more hours this year. Biden said he wants to make some seasonal jobs permanent.
Advocates for wildland firefighters praised the move to raise pay. “The President’s acknowledgement of the problem and short-term improvements is the first step, and we are encouraged that the administration knows this is only a start," said Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, in a written statement. The group advocates for federal wildland firefighters.
"Long-term solutions, anchored by congressional action, is what we need.”
So far this year, 47 wildfires have burned 667,566 acres in 12 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which oversees federal fire management programs.
The agency last week moved the national preparedness level— which assesses, from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 5, the severity of fires and strain on firefighting resources—to level 4. It’s the fourth time in the past 20 years that the United States has reached level 4 this early in the summer.