WASHINGTON — As wildfires burn hotter and longer across more of the U.S., federal agencies are struggling to retain a workforce to fight them.
The problem is urgent, as the total acres burned across has doubled over the past 20 years, breaking records in many states, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. The federal government has a firefighting force nearly 19,000-strong between the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and four agencies within the Department of the Interior.
The intense requirements of the job have long outpaced compensation, advocacy groups and firefighters say. Fearing worsening attrition, they have have pushed lawmakers for pay reforms that will outlast the funds set forth in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which are expected to be spent by the end of 2026.
“People who come into the job and stay love it,” said Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “It takes a special kind of person to do this job.”
The problem, she said, is that when these workforces are successful in recruiting young firefighters, they often leave early in their career because they can’t make ends meet.
About 70% of the Forest Service’s wildland fire workforce, and 59% of the Interior’s, are in grades GS-07 or below, according to officials in the GAO report.
For firefighters, pay starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, which increased in August 2021 from $13.
According to the report, Forest Service and Interior officials said that while recent steps to increase federal wildland firefighter pay are positive, they believe that it still does not reflect the demands of the job. Moreover, the report found that firefighters can earn more working for nonfederal firefighting entities.
There has been progress.
Agencies have put forth sign-on bonuses of at least $1,000 and expanded salary increases called for in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, even in areas where there is not necessarily a recruitment challenge.
The act also called for budgets to provide for an increase of $20,000 per year or an increase of 50% of the base salary, whichever is less.
These are partial solutions to a problem that employee advocacy groups have been trying to solve for decades with the help of policymakers in government. The difference now, though, is that the job doesn’t look like it used to, and even latest improvements are just playing catch up.
Wildland firefighters participate in what Duncan and others in the job call “all hazard, all response.”
“We train FEMA,” she said. “Our incident management team was at Katrina. We were at 9/11, both in New York and at the Pentagon, because we know how to respond to emergencies. A lot of people don’t realize that we respond to mudslides to hurricanes to tornadoes to terrorist attacks.”
The job has expanded both inside and outside the role of traditional firefighting. Duncan and her colleagues have been classified as “forestry technicians,” which was created as a job in the 1970s. Today, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and others have said this can no longer serve as a catch-all for work that involves a broad range of skills, from parachuting into a fire to analyzing weather and topographical data.
In late June, OPM released a memo outlining an update to the classification of “federal wildland firefighters” as directed by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November last year. All federal agencies who employ wildland firefighters have 12 months since the issuance date of the memo to implement the change, Federal Times previously reported.
Creating a more specific and accurate classification series is also the underpinning of the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, which would, if passed, create a new pay scale and codify benefits unique to the job, such as mental health leave, buy-back temporary time and disability annuity.
The bill is named after a wildland firefighter who died in 2021 fighting the Eicks Fire in New Mexico.
“With the infrastructure bill passing, it gave a much needed Band-Aid to create increased pay for firefighters that allowed them to take a breath, and say, ‘OK, we’re being recognized,’” said Michelle Hart, Tim’s wife, in a phone interview. “The problem is that money is going to run out.”
For a permanent solution, USDA said it was working on a proposal for the fiscal 2024 president’s budget request.
Compensation must go beyond just pay to include benefits that are tailored to the nature of working in remote areas of the country and having to abruptly relocate to the nearest emergency, Hart said.
Officials acknowledged in the report that providing housing stipends for firefighters would also incentivize the job, but agencies would have to request that authority from Congress before offering them.
Other issues besides pay contribute to the workforce shortage, including a lack of diversity within the force that deters minority applicants, confusing hiring procedures and job applications listed only during peak fire season, and persistent mental health concerns among those working wildfires on the front line.
Ryan White contributed reporting to this story.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.