A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.
The nation’s wildland firefighters have once more been left to hang.
Although the roughly 19,000 federal firefighters last year received substantial pay bumps of either $20,000 or 50 percent of base salaries, which were retroactive to October 2021, those increases were only temporary.
And while Congressional legislation would bridge the so-called “pay cliff,” the bill is languishing, with lawmakers instead contesting, for what seems like the umpteenth time, how and to what extent to fund government operations.
The raises for the firefighters, who are employed by the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and 4 agencies within the Department of the Interior, were set to expire at the end of September and then again last month, they were carried over first on Sept. 30 and then again Nov. 14 by stopgap spending bills subsequently signed by President Biden.
Although wildland fire dangers eased this year, the prospect of devastating fires continues to increase across the country, and union and fire officials worry that unless the raises are made permanent, experienced wildland firefighters will leave in droves, many for better paying jobs with municipal and state departments.
The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about 10,000 federal wildland firefighters, estimates that without the permanent pay raises, as many as 50 percent of wildland firefighters could leave their posts.
Ken Pimlott, the former director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, called the lack of Congressional action puzzling given the stakes, and likely reflected “a lack of understanding” by the lawmakers and the public generally regarding the role the federal firefighters play.
“And they sort of take for granted that those firefighters are going to be there and they're not really diving into that pay issue,” he said during a phone interview last week.
But while lawmakers’ might have a built-in skepticism regarding costs associated with raises for federal workers, Pimlott said, in this case that distrust translates into an increasingly concerning lack of staff at federal fire stations for at least some of the fire season. While the Forest Service and other agencies address those shortages as best they can, “the reality is reaching sort of a crisis level,” he said.
His comments echoed those of Randy Irwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, who earlier this year said the lack of Congressional action could lead to catastrophe.
“We are incredibly close to an absolute disaster for not only our wildland firefighters, but the country as a whole,” he said in September.
‘An adult decision’
A November 2022 report by the Government Accountability Office based on interviews with both federal firefighting officials and non-federal stakeholders found that low pay was the most frequently cited obstacle to recruitment and retention of federal wildland firefighters, with many noting “that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work.”
Over 12,000 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed on average each year between 2017 and 2021, more than triple the average in the preceding five-year period, according to a report by the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The wildfires caused $81.6 billion in damage from 2017 to 2021, almost 10 times the amount in the preceding five-year period.
Citing those figures, Pimlott said, should be one way to convince lawmakers of the need to first sustain and then replenish the federal firefighter ranks. “I think we really have to be almost doing a better job of articulating the value of the workforce,” he said, particularly given that it falls to local firefighting authorities to combat blazes if federal crews are not available.
“It costs more to reach out to other fire departments to do that, and fires get bigger,” Pimlott said.
He noted that federal firefighters are also largely responsible for wildfire mitigation. Without those crews, he said, “We're never going to get ahead of this problem.”
Steve Gutierrez, a federal wildland firefighter for 15 years Forest Service and now a business representative with the National Federation of Federal Employees, also noted that it’s a question of informing the public and lawmakers of the vital part played by wildland firefighters, particularly since their work is largely done outside the limelight.
“Most folks don't even know that these men and brave men and women are running around in green fire trucks and green hotshot boats,” he said, referring to teams of elite crews. “And they're working right next to state municipal departments that are making three to four times more money right next to them.”
Although lawmakers have taken up the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act of 2023, it is languishing, with Pimlott suggesting it is hostage of “polarizing politics.”
The bill, introduced by Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema in July, would establish specialized pay for federal wildland firefighters by creating a pay schedule determined by position grade. It also would provide premium pay for wildland firefighters working fires that are not contained within 36 hours. The legislation also includes a provision providing for paid rest and recuperation leave following prolonged fires.
Gutierrez said that through Jan. 19, when the latest short-term funding runs out, federal firefighters will be making what he called “an adult decision, regardless if you like the job or not — to take care of your family.”
One option, he said, is to leave and join a state or municipal fire department and make a decent living.
Already, Gutierrez said, federal agencies are sustaining a crush of departures.
“So we are seeing a mass exodus of people, not even just the younger trained folks, but well qualified … engine captains, hotshot superintendents that have that 10 to 15 years of experience leave the Forest Service for better pastures just so they can put food on the table,” he said. “I can’t blame them.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here