Federal wildland firefighters will reap $600 million in pay raises and job changes under the sweeping infrastructure bill signed this week by President Joe Biden.
The money will allow the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to raise wages for federal firefighters in places where jobs are hard to fill and convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighting jobs to full-time, permanent jobs.
The new law instructs the secretaries to develop new job titles and descriptions that reflect wildland firefighters’ role as first responders and to develop strategies for reducing firefighters’ exposure to on-the-job hazards and to better support their mental health.
Advocates for federal wildland firefighters say that while the bill took a big step in the right direction, there’s still more to be done to improve pay and working conditions.
“The infrastructure bill is a good start,” said Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group, in a phone interview. “But it doesn’t address all the issues and challenges that the wildland fire community is facing."
Many federal firefighting crews were short-staffed this year, particularly in California, which endured another tough fire season that destroyed thousands of structures and forced towns to evacuate.
Federal fire officials and former firefighters say agencies have struggled for years to fill key firefighting positions. Low pay, long deployments and on-the-job stress have all made it difficult to recruit and retain permanent personnel, they say. Entry-level firefighters are paid a base wage of $13.50 an hour.
Members of Congress now are pushing further legislation that would raise firefighters’ pay to at least $20 an hour and improve their benefits, including by giving them mental health leave and housing stipends.
Nationally, more than 6.5 million acres have burned this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the national response to wildfires. Over the past 10 years, about 7 million acres on average have burned by this point in the year.