Dolan Fire - PS37-2.jpg

A firefighter with the Laguna Hotshots sharpens their hand tool after digging a fireline in an attempt to protect a home from the Dolan Fire on Thrusday, Aug. 20, 2020.

After years of complaints over pay and turnover, federal firefighters in agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will receive pay raises and bonuses, according to a commitment made by the Biden administration on June 30.

President Joe Biden said he was surprised to find some federal firefighters earn only $13 per hour, calling it “unacceptable.” Minimum pay will be increased, he said, to $15 per hour. Most firefighters working on the front lines will receive a 10-percent retention bonus and temporary firefighters who commit to staying on for the entire season will receive another $1,000 bonus.

Biden said immediate pay bumps and incentives are only a short-term olive branch and that his administration needs to work with Congress on longer-term solutions.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, the federal workers union, agreed. In a July 8 letter to Biden, the NFFE said it has pushed for increased firefighting resources for years. The union called for the government to raise firefighter pay across the board by at least 50 percent, add up to 20,000 new firefighter positions over the next decade and explore mental health resources for employees.

Andrew Madsen, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest, says it’s good that federal firefighters in California will no longer be earning less than the state’s minimum wage of $15 per hour; however, there is still a significant gap between his guys and Cal Fire firefighters.

The two agencies often fight fires alongside one another, yet he says federal firefighters only get paid for a maximum of 16 hours per day and then sleep in tents during the time they are fighting a fire while Cal Fire crews are paid at a higher premium with greater benefits and sometimes receive hotel rooms.

Madsen says until the pay and resources gaps are narrowed, federal firefighting agencies will continue to lose important staff to other, more attractive organizations.

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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