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Labor shortage compounds federal firefighters’ staffing woes

Hot shot crew members keep an eye on the blaze as fire crews ignite the underbrush off Forest Road 545B in an effort to contain the Pipeline Fire near Flagstaff, Arizona, on June 15. Firefighter groups are applauding steps taken by the Biden administration to temporarily raise wages for the men and women on the front lines of the nation's largest wildfires. (Rachel Gibbons/Arizona Daily Sun via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY – Firefighter groups are applauding the Biden administration’s steps to raise pay but warn that the temporary wage increases won’t be enough to combat staffing problems, as federal agencies compete with local fire departments and big box stores in a tight labor market.

“It’s an effort and an attempt to try to keep people at their jobs,” Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to raise federal firefighter pay. “But it still falls woefully short of the pay in municipal departments and other state agencies.”

Wildfire season is raging throughout the western U.S. and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating challenges facing the land management agencies that employ firefighters. For years, firefighters and their advocates have decried stagnant pay and increased costs of living, arguing both are making recruitment difficult and attrition inevitable.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that infrastructure bill funds would go to back pay and give all federal firefighters a raise for two years — either a 50% bump from their base salary or $20,000, whichever is less.

The move comes after an executive order President Joe Biden signed last year to raise federal firefighter minimum wage to $15 an hour. And it implements provisions of last year’s infrastructure bill designed to help recruit and retain firefighters, including $600 million in one-time funding to raise pay.

Biden said funding for long-term pay raises remained a priority as climate change makes the U.S. West hotter, drier and more prone to 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,” he said in a statement.

‘Unable to fill’

Though officials say it’s an imperfect metric, the number of unfilled staffing requests on large wildfires – or “unable to fill orders,” indicates growing problems: In 2019, there were 92 times where the National Interagency Fire Center couldn’t mobilize crews to wildfires upon request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that couldn’t be filled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders couldn’t be filled.

Ken Schmid, operations specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center, said “unable to fill” orders reflect staffing needs but also may depend on geography or time of year, particularly in months when agencies dedicate staff members to training or other high priority work.

“What it comes down to is we’ve got more big fires out there and incident management teams with needs to try and corral them than we have folks available,” said Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper and the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant director for fire and aviation.

Members of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters believe raises were long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent increases, some of the nation’s most skilled firefighters – including hot shots, smokejumpers and helitack crews – may go work elsewhere.

“You can go to a Whole Foods and start off at $16 an hour with $1,000 signing bonus. It’s just a tight labor market now,” Golden, the former firefighter, said.

Wildland firefighters from several agencies throughout the country wait along state road 283 to be sent into the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires burning just west of Las Vegas, N.M. on May 7. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal via AP file)

In addition to facing competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local departments that can pay more, offer more full-time positions and better benefits.

Mid-career federal firefighters currently earn about half the pay of third-year firefighters employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to analysis from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. Incident commanders working for federal agencies can make as little as one-quarter of the pay of entry-level municipal firefighters working the same fire.

Pay bumps and the creation of a new job classification that will allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round positions will narrow the gap between federal firefighters’ pay and benefits and their state and local counterparts, federal officials say.

In a fact-sheet released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday to help firefighting agencies recruit more workers and create career advancement opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should lower attrition rates for skilled firefighters who have left for other departments or industries.

Land management agencies, mainly the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, want to employ more than 30,000 firefighters during peak season this summer and have worked to recruit new employees throughout the spring.

But the Forest Service said last month that staffing levels were 90% overall, but as low as 50% in some fire-prone regions, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Erwin, president of the union representing a majority of federal wildland firefighters, said recruitment and retention had been particularly difficult this year, amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects the pay bump to help agencies fill their firefighting ranks.

“Firefighters simply could not make ends meet on the hopelessly low salaries offered at federal agencies, so jobs were becoming very difficult to fill,” he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there were few signs of competition for workers decreasing or hiring slowing down. Though the labor market remains tight, he said private sector employers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels more than public sector employers such as the federal agencies who employ firefighters.

Firefighting may be an attractive profession for young people craving adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said the allure would likely not insulate federal agencies from broader trends in the labor market and the many factors that prospective employees weigh when considering jobs.

“Based on my read of everything going on in the labor market, unless they are going to be doing other things to attract people – like bonuses and other incentives – it’s going to be really hard,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who last month in a letter called looming staffing shortages an “urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars,” applauded Biden’s announcement. But he said more needed to be done for firefighters, particularly as blazes grow more severe.

“They deserve the basic decency of good pay and good benefits that fully recognize their sacrifice and essential work, and allows them to support their families,” he said.

“Summer is here, there are firefighter shortages in Oregon and across the West, and there is no time to waste in getting these changes implemented on the ground.”

Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed from Washington, D.C. Sam Metz reported part of this story from an Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources workshop in Boise, Idaho.