Thousands of federal firefighters face a looming pay cut. How much is up to Congress

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This file photo from Sept. 19, 2020 shows flames burning up a tree in the Trail of 100 Giants Grove in Sequoia Forest National Park, Calif.

Noah Berger/AP


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In this file photo taken on Sept. 19, 2021, flames are seen burning a tree in the Trail of 100 Giants Grove in Sequoia National Forest in California.

Noah Berger/AP

Federal wildland firefighter were at the forefront of some of America’s and Canada’s most intense wildfires this summer.


And whether or not the government makes a deal, rent is due Oct. 1.

I can’t afford to live on 40 hours a week”

Rachel Granberg, Wildland Firefighter

That’s because last year the bipartisan infrastructure law provided monetary bonuses to federal first responders of $20,000 or 50% – whichever was less.

Rachel Granberg, Wildland Firefighter

That’s because last year, the bipartisan infrastructure law provided a temporary pay bump to these federal first responders of $20,000 or 50%, whichever was less. Officials estimate that the money will last for about two years, retroactively to October 2021. Even with the infrastructure money, many people still leave and it will only get worse when that money runs out. “

But federal officials expected the money to run out and relied on Congress for a permanent fix to increase the base salary of these firefighters. Republicans in the House are unable to come up with a solution, despite a bipartisan effort by the Senate.

“All the fixes proposed do not match the money we receive thanks to the Infrastructure Bill,” Granberg said. Even if the bill passes, we will still see a decrease in pay, which is frustrating. “

Wildland firefighter Rachel Granberg poses in her uniform

Rachel Granberg


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Rachel Granberg


Wildland Firefighter Rachel Granberg selfies in her uniform

Rachel Granberg

Granberg earns a base salary of $37,000. The Infrastructure Law gave her a pay bump that brought her to almost $50,000. She said, “I can’t live on forty hours a day.” The Interior Department is expected to run out of funds on September 30. The USDA warned its employees earlier this year that their pay could be cut in half. NPR obtained USDA materials warning that entry-level employees’ base pay could drop by nearly $20,000 from under $60,000 down to $40,000. If they don’t know what to do, they may accept job offers. Hall-Rivera stated that the pay supplement enabled workers to reduce their need to work extra hours.

“It was a major game changer for many people.” “We are approaching a point where this will disappear and firefighters won’t know what they can expect in its place,” she stated in an interview. Right now, there is nothing. “

Pay problems are nothing new for federal fire forces. They have been struggling with staffing shortages, and low morale for more than a decade. In 2021 President Biden raised federal wildland firefighters’ wages to $15 per hour minimum. Still, some state outfits like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the Unified Fire Authority in Utah will pay upwards of $50,000 base salary to someone even without experience.

The threat of a pay cliff has many worried staffing shortages could worsen in the coming year. Many reported that they had difficulty finding staff this year, even with the additional wages. DOI has hired over 87% of its goal for firefighter. The Forest Service reported that it met 99% of their hiring goal in July. But the numbers do not always reflect the reality on the ground.
The prescribed fire was burned during a wildland firefighters training on June 9 in Hazel Green (Ala.).

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A prescribed burn during a wildland firefighters training on June 9 in Hazel Green (Ala.).

George Walker IV/AP

He noted that his current $70,000 salary will drop to $50,000 after the money runs out, while someone at CalFire with his experience could make $120,000. He noted his current $70,000 salary will drop to $50,000 after the money runs out while someone at CalFire with his experience could make $120,000.

“There are engines parked that we can’t take to wildfires because we don’t have the amount of people to even minimally staff what we have on paper,” he explained.

McLane, like others who spoke to NPR, reported fire truck engines and equipment not being used this year because the staff was not there to operate them. Others told NPR they have been moved around to account for shortages in other areas, and have also seen their own crews operate with limited personnel.

Hiring numbers reported by agencies will reflect hires made at a given time but not if crews are still minimally staffed and won’t account for employees who quit or never show up.“We did well on our goal, but we’re going to have shortages everywhere because the fact of the matter is we don’t have the number of firefighters we need to deal with what we’re seeing in fire years,” Hall-Rivera said.
The pressure mounts each year as workers fear worsening fire seasons across North America. In the past year, the United States sent over 2,200 federal firefighter to Canada, the biggest mobilization in 40 years of a shared personnel agreement.

A DOI spokesperson told NPR that before 2023, the most robust exchange of U.S.-Canada resources occurred in 2020 when nearly 600 firefighters and incident management personnel supported wildfire suppression operations in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Officials say firefighting isn’t as seasonal as it used to be, in part due to climate change, and that leaves the workforce behind without an updated pay or benefits structure to accommodate the new reality.


“We’re asking people to do a very different job in a very different way than when how we fight fire was conceptualized. And it truly was kind of the summertime for that and we’re just not in that place anymore,” Hall-Rivera explained.

Bipartisan support in the Senate, while the House is in limbo

The idea of increasing firefighter pay has generally broad bipartisan support. Members of both parties have introduced bills in the House and Senate. Yet, no agreement has been reached. Valentine noted that her husband receives $750 more per paycheck than they do, barely covering their mortgage. Valentine, who lives in rural New Mexico, an hour from childcare and with two children at home, has chosen to study online rather than seek a job. Valentine is not only taking out student loans to pay for college.

“I took out $10,000 this year in student loans to mitigate any losses that may occur,” Valentine said. We’ll have to use the money from the loans for housing payments, and then he will start looking for another job. “

That new job would likely not be in firefighting — New Mexico’s state agency doesn’t pay as high as others, either, Valentine said.

In the Senate, lawmakers have garnered around the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would permanently increase base pay for federal firefighters.

But in the House, Republicans and Democrats have separate efforts. Some acknowledge that DOI is going to run out by the end the month. Others take issue with the Forest Service’s calculation of when they will run out. “A permanent solution is not mutually exclusive from transparency questions.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., introduced his own measure, which would keep the base pay increases from the infrastructure law but only for two more years.

Meanwhile, firefighters on the ground are still working and a pay cliff, they said, will eventually affect them.

“There’s just the uncertainty of what my income is going to be,” said a wildland firefighter who asked to be kept anonymous because of a pending job offer could be withdrawn for publicly criticizes the legislation. The wildland firefighter who requested anonymity said, “There’s just the uncertainty of what my income is going to be.” This was because a pending job offer could be withdrawn if he publicly criticizes the legislation. Even with the Paycheck Protection Act. With that, we’re still going see a cut in pay. We don’t know even if it will be passed. It’s really coming down to the amount of cut we will see. “