“Our wildland firefighters risk their lives every day to protect communities, critical infrastructure, and natural resources – recognizing their sacrifice through greater support is not only the right thing to do, it’s our duty.”
– Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced the challenges of longer, more severe fire years, while their pay has lagged behind their counterparts in the private sector and state and local governments. Decades of shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have turned fire “seasons” into fire “years,” with increasingly destructive fires stretching the limit of available firefighting resources, year after year.
Federal firefighters also lack an official, uniform occupational title within the federal government – the remnant of creative occupational workarounds from decades ago. This has since become counterproductive and fails to recognize the unique, dangerous, and highly skilled work they do.
The Biden-Harris Administration has led efforts to address these issues, and together with partner agencies, USDA is taking the steps necessary to build the well-supported, more permanent wildland firefighting force needed to address the wildfire crisis.
“Hiring and retaining firefighters in increasingly long and complex fire years is a challenge that we take seriously. The President’s Budget and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provide a significant down payment towards investments in the stable, professional, and permanent wildland firefighting workforce we need to confront the wildfire crisis.”
– Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
- In June 2021, President Biden increased the minimum wage for wildland firefighters to $15 an hour, delivering more than $24 million in additional pay to 11,300 firefighters through incentives, awards and bonuses. This was a critical step to address part of the compensation challenges that our wildland firefighters face. However, this was a short-term measure.
- Today, thanks to pay provisions in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, wildland firefighters will see increases in pay equal to $20,000 or 50% of their annual base salary (including locality pay and special rate supplements), whichever is less.
- USDA firefighters on the roles prior to May 21, 2022, will begin seeing additional pay, which is retroactive to October 1, 2021. The remaining wildland firefighters will begin seeing additional pay between early July and August 2022.
- These unprecedented actions on behalf of the wildland firefighter workforce are a significant step forward that will deliver an immediate, temporary pay raise to wildland firefighters across the nation, and sets us on a path to continue our work with stakeholders towards a permanent, competitive, and equitable pay structure, along with a support system that will address the many challenges that have plagued our Wildland Firefighter workforce for decades.
CREATING A WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER OCCUPATIONAL SERIES
- President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directs USDA and federal partners to develop a Wildland Firefighter occupational series – a title that has not existed in the federal government for half a century.
- This job title will clearly define the duties of a wildland firefighter and provides direction for career advancement.
- A wildland firefighting occupational series, with clearly defined duties and career paths, will help USDA and partner agencies recruit and retain those interested in wildland firefighting as a career.
- Agencies have up to a year to implement the new occupational series and have begun working on this transition. Current firefighters will be able to choose to opt-in to the new occupational series or remain in their current one.
WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER WELL-BEING
USDA and partner agencies recognize that in addition to increased pay and career recognition, wildland firefighters struggle with housing, cost of living and mental health issues.
- The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directs the USDA and partner agencies to stand up programs to address these concerns, including programs to help firefighters contend with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs.
- To improve the work/life balance for USDA Forest Service firefighters, the Chief of the Forest Service Chief increased the longstanding standard of rest between fire assignments from two days to three.
- The Forest Service has also activated a new contract for the Employee Assistance Program to better meet the needs of all employees, increasing trauma-trained clinicians, increased the number of clinicians in rural areas, telehealth options, a smart phone app for quick access to services, and expanded proactive and preventative services focused on mental health, wellness and family needs.
- USDA is committed to securing a significant and a long-term investment to support and grow our wildland firefighter workforce. We are working on a proposal for the FY24 President’s Budget request to Congress that includes a permanent fix for firefighter pay.
The Wildfire Crisis
The USDA Forest Service has also launched a 10-year strategy to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. The strategy focuses on priority landscapes nationwide, where wildfire poses the most risk. The strategy combines an historic investment of congressional funding with years of scientific research and planning into a national effort to significantly increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.
This 10-year strategy to prevent and mitigate wildfires aims to make the business of fire suppression safer and compliments USDA’s ongoing efforts to address employee safety and well-being.
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