Our nation’s wildland firefighters safeguard vital benefits for communities across the nation: protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure, defending lives and private property from the risk of catastrophic wildfire, preserving forests so they can help us combat climate change, and protecting landscapes that contain cultural and natural resources of significance and value to Tribes, provide habitat to fish and wildlife, and serve as a source of drinking water for more than 60 million people. Investing in our wildland firefighting workforce is a matter of national security as there are more than 460 million acres of land at moderate to very high risk from wildfire this year, and the number of acres burned in 2021 is the highest on record.
For decades, Federal wildland firefighters have faced the challenges of longer, more severe fire years with pay that has lagged behind their counterparts. Shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have turned fire “seasons” into fire “years” in which increasingly destructive fires are exceeding available Federal firefighting resources. Federal firefighters also lack an official, uniform occupational series and a clear path for career advancement through the Federal government.
Today, the Biden-Harris Administration is announcing a series of bold steps to increase pay, create new mental wellness and health supports, and establish a new wildland fire management job series for federal firefighters. These unprecedented actions on behalf of the wildland firefighter workforce are funded by $600 million from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These measures are a significant step forward that will deliver an immediate, temporary pay raise to Federal wildland firefighters across the nation, and sets Federal agencies on a path to continue working with stakeholders towards an updated, 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.
Under President Biden’s 2021 initiatives to support federal wildland firefighters and ensure they receive a minimum of $15 per hour, more than 11,300 firefighters received pay increases last year at a cost of $24.3 million. This increase in the minimum wage was a critical first step for the dignity and respect of all Federal employees. Over the coming summer months, the Administration is implementing a new set of temporary pay increases that will put retroactive pay (from October 1, 2021) into wildland firefighter pockets increasing their bi-weekly pay, up to the lesser of $20,000 or 50% of their annual base salary through September 2023. The Federal agencies will begin processing these payments in the coming weeks, with additional payments to occur throughout July and into August. The $600 million in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law serves as a bridge for two years as the Administration works with Congress on longer-term reforms.
CREATING NEW SUPPORTS FOR FIREFIGHTERS
During a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) last week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the establishment of an interagency wildland firefighter health and wellbeing program. Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a significant toll on their overall health and wellbeing, as well as on those who love them. Standing up a targeted interagency effort to provide trauma-informed mental health care is critical. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directs the Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Agriculture (USDA) to increase focus on wildland firefighters’ physical and mental wellbeing. The newly established joint DOI- U.S. Forest Service program will address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care for permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round wildland firefighters at both agencies, along with addressing environmental hazards to minimize on-the-job exposure for wildland firefighters. The joint program will also connect existing efforts and establish year-round prevention and mental health training for wildland firefighters and create critical incident stress management staffing response. The Forest Service along with each of DOI’s wildland fire management bureaus – the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service – will also add staffing capacity specifically to focus on mental health and employee support efforts for firefighters.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also provides increased support to the Joint Fire Science Program, an interagency partnership with USDA’s U.S. Forest Service that funds wildfire science research projects. A total of $3.1 million will be used to support research towards a better understanding of firefighter mental health, landscape resiliency, and other climate-related studies on the beneficial uses of prescribed fire, carbon storage, and greenhouse gas and smoke emissions.
IMPROVING RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION
Because the pay increase under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is temporary, the Biden-Harris Administration supports a new firefighter pay structure that is both sufficiently competitive and equitable to address longstanding nationwide recruitment and retention challenges and consider the longer work shifts, pressures and risks associated with these jobs. The Administration is committed to working with Congress to secure much needed investments and to grow this critical workforce. The costs in firefighter turnover brought about by not having an adequately compensated and supported firefighting workforce will far exceed the amount needed to invest in them.
ESTABLISHING NEW WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT OCCUPATIONAL SERIES
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has taken the necessary step of creating the Wildland Fire Management occupational series established under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. No such series has existed for 50 years. The new occupational series better identifies Federal firefighters with the work they do. It defines the duties of wildland firefighters and is responsive to the calls of firefighters and their unions to provide opportunities for career advancement. It also gives a boost to recruiting, as agencies can now post clear job opportunity announcements that specifically target people interested in wildland firefighting jobs. And it will help with retention, as our wildland firefighter workforce will benefit from a clear career path with detailed requirements for advancement, providing wildland firefighters with a job title and description that more accurately reflects their contributions.
Agencies will implement the new series in the coming months, though current Federal firefighters will be able to choose whether to opt-in to the new Wildland Fire Management series or stay in their current occupations. Once fully implemented, the series will provide a solid foundation for recruitment and retention, further strengthening our wildland firefighter workforce and contributing to the fire safety of communities across our Nation.