Jun 21, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Biden announces pay bump for federal firefighters

A Forest Service wildland firefighter battling the Caldor Fire near Twin Bridges, California, in August 2021.
A Forest Service wildland firefighter battles the Caldor Fire near Twin Bridges, Calif., in August 2021. Photo: Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

The Biden administration announced a new temporary pay raise for federal wildland firefighters Tuesday, significantly bumping their wages over the next two fiscal years.

Why it matters: The wage increase comes as the Forest Service is struggling to hire firefighters in parts of the country, especially Western states, amid an already abnormally active fire season.

By the numbers: The Biden administration said it will increase federal wildland firefighters' salaries by $20,000 per year or 50% of their current base salary, whichever is lower.

  • The pay increase will come from $600 million allocated through the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal signed by President Biden last year.
  • This comes after the administration bumped the pay for federal wildland firefighters to $15 per hour last year.

Despite that pay raise, the Forest Service has still been struggling to meet its hiring targets.

  • As of mid-May, the service had hired more than 10,100 permanent and seasonal firefighters, or roughly 90% of its target of 11,300 total personnel.
  • It confirmed to Axios on June 9 that it has "struggled to fill positions in some areas of the country, especially in the Pacific Northwest and California, where the labor pool is low and pay isn’t as competitive as we would like it to be."
  • It also cited high labor demand as another factor behind its staffing shortage and hiring difficulties in those areas.
  • Data recently obtained by Buzzfeed News showed that California’s federal wildland fighting force had been just 65% to 70% staffed, potentially reflecting frustrations over low pay, inadequate benefits, poor living conditions and the extreme mental and physical toll from the job.

What they're saying: "There’s an old expression that God made man — and then he made a few firefighters," Biden said in a statement Tuesday.

  • "Firefighters are some of the bravest men and women among us, and the backbones of our communities, protecting our homes, businesses, schools and families from catastrophe," he added.
  • "But we know there is more work to do, especially as climate change fuels more wildfires. I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve."
  • Along with the pay raise, the Biden administration announced new programs meant to focus on the mental and physical well-being of firefighters.

The big picture: 31,000 fires have already scorched more than 3,215,000 acres around the U.S. this wildfire season, well above 10-year averages for this time of the year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

  • The already-severe wildfire season is being driven by record-setting heat waves and a deepening climate-change-driven drought across much of the Western U.S.
  • As of June 14, over 57% of the U.S. was under at least abnormally dry conditions, while almost 20% of the country was experiencing at least extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Go deeper: Arizona wildfire threatens national observatory

Axios' Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.

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