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Federal Wildland Firefighters Get Pay Boost

A sign on a wooden fence thanks firefighters.
A sign on a wooden fence thanks firefighters.

Starting this week, base wages for federal wildland firefighters will increase to at least $15 an hour, a raise that applies to roughly 15,000 firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department. It was previously $13.45.

Back in June, the White House announced plans to improve working conditions for wildland firefighters, acknowledging that climate change is driving the devastating intersection of extreme heat, drought, and wildland fire danger across the United States.

On Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack implemented the raise, which will include back pay to June 30th. Additionally, all temporary frontline firefighters will receive a $1,300 bonus, while all permanent frontline firefighters up to GS-9 will receive a bonus equal to 10 percent of six months of their base pay.

"The brave women and men on the frontlines deserve fair pay for their work to protect our families, our communities, and our lands from the increasing threat of fire," Haaland said in a statement.

Ben Elkind is a federal wildland firefighter based in central Oregon, and a vocal advocate for compensation commensurate with the dangers of the job and the cost of living in the West. He said the pay initiative is a good first step.

"The leadership for the first time is recognizing publicly that this isn't enough," he said.

And Elkind said the boost comes at a time when staff shortages are a serious problem out in the field.

"A lot of that has to do with low pay—people just basically walk off the job, or don't come back the next season,” he said. "They quit."

The Biden administration has also said it plans to improve benefits and work-life balance for wildland firefighters. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $600 million for wildland firefighter salaries, expenses and the development of a distinct "wildland firefighter" classification series, among other things.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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