The sweeping infrastructure bill that the U.S. Senate passed on Tuesday would lay the groundwork for raising federal wildland firefighter pay.
The bill would order the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments—which together employ some 15,000 wildland firefighters—to start working with the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government’s human resources agency, on a new set of job classifications for firefighters.
Lawmakers and advocates for federal firefighters say changing job classifications is the first step toward raising pay for all firefighters.
The Senate bill also would have the Agriculture and Interior Departments turn at least 1,000 seasonal firefighting jobs into full-time positions. And it would allow agencies to raise pay by $20,000 per year, or 50% of a job’s base salary, for positions that are particularly hard to fill in a certain area.
The legislation now must pass the U.S. House before it can head to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Biden last month announced one-time raises and bonuses for federal wildland firefighters to ensure they earn at least $15 an hour.
Federal wildland firefighters say low pay, long deployments and hazardous conditions are making it hard to fill jobs, even as increasingly large and dangerous wildfires make the wildland firefighter workforce more important than ever.
Staffing problems are particularly acute in California, where this spring the U.S. Forest Service sought to fill 781 vacant permanent positions but ended up with 725 vacancies. As of July, only half of fire engines in the California region were fully staffed and able to operate five days a week.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group that’s been lobbying Congress to improve firefighter pay and working conditions, applauded the Senate bill.
“Grassroots Wildland Firefighters are elated with the Senate passage of HR 3684 and the public acknowledgement that our federal wildland firefighter workforce, in desperate need of modern reform, is beginning its first steps to much needed improvements,” said the group’s president, Kelly Martin, in a news release.
Over 3.8 million acres have burned in the United States so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the national response to wildfires. Almost 26,000 firefighters and support personnel are currently assigned to large fires, according to the center.