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Firefighters are leaving the U.S. Forest Service for better pay and benefits

Scorching summer heat could pave the way for a mean wildfire season as a temporary salary increase is set to expire.
A Forest Service firefighter works the Caldor Fire in El Dorado County, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2021.
A Forest Service firefighter works the Caldor fire in El Dorado County, California, in 2021.Karl Mondon / The Mercury News via Getty Images file

Thousands of federal wildland firefighters could walk off the job if Congress fails to pass a permanent pay increase, officials and advocates warned amid an already scorching summer that could lead to an explosion of wildfires later in the year.

From 30% to 50% of the roughly 11,000 firefighters who combat wildfires across millions of acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service could resign in coming seasons without a longterm solution to persistently low wages and poor benefits, according to the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“This is an absolute crisis,” said Max Alonzo, an organizer with the federation. “The majority of people I know already have their applications out for other jobs and they’re just waiting.”

The situation has grown so dire that the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California saw 42 resignations in 48 hours in May, officials said.

Many of those firefighters left for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which is viewed as a prime gig thanks to its generous salaries, robust benefits and manageable work schedule that was recently negotiated down to a 66-hour work week from 72 hours.

“Soon there won’t be anybody left,” said Steve Gutierrez, a former hotshot who recently left the Forest Service after 15 years to advocate on behalf of firefighters through the federation. “We train them and Cal Fire takes them.”

Aaron Foye, who resigned from the San Bernardino National Forest last September for a job as an engineer with Cal Fire, estimated staff shortages were so high when he left that only one out of four fire engine crews was staffed seven days a week.

“I felt like I was being selfish working at the Forest Service because I wasn’t really providing enough for my family,” Foye said. “All of our best talent with the Forest Service has bled out in the last two years.”

Lawmakers have introduced bills this year in the House and the Senate that would codify an existing pay increase under President Joe’s Biden’s infrastructure bill, which temporarily bumped salaries for wildland firefighters by up to $20,000.

Without a permanent fix, that increase is set to expire at the end of September and roll back salaries for thousands of federal firefighters.

“We absolutely need Congress to take action and put in place a permanent pay fix,” said Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera. “If we’re not able to do that and we’re not able to give them that certainty going into the future, they are going to need to look elsewhere for a position that does provide that certainty.”

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of six senators introduced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would keep the current pay raise and help to ensure the federal government can recruit and retain a sufficient firefighting workforce for years to come.

In May, a bipartisan bill was reintroduced in the House that would similarly increase pay and address firefighters’ mental and physical health, housing, retirement and tuition assistance benefits. It was referred to the forestry subcommittee in June.

Federal wildland firefighters have long warned that without a permanent pay raise, their ranks would dwindle even as wildfires continue to increase in both intensity and frequency across the country and beyond.

The expertise of federal firefighters is unrivaled when compared with the experience of those who work for municipal and state agencies, which might not include hiking through rugged and dangerous terrain or dropping from helicopters into the middle of a forest. Federal firefighters are also able to traverse state and international borders, including joining Canadian forces this year to battle historic blazes north of the United States.

Still, the Forest Service has struggled in recent years to fill vacancies amid rising inflation and severe drought, officials said. In 2021, during one of the most destructive fire seasons in history, the agency also faced shrinking water, food and communications supplies in addition to low staffing levels.

This year, the Forest Service has 11,150 wildland firefighters onboard nationwide, or 99% of its goal of 11,300, the agency said.

For many men and women on the front lines of fighting fires, the high cost of living means more stress for them and their families, and they begin looking for some relief.

At Cal Fire, the state added 37 fire crews to its staff in 2022 after adding 16 in 2021. An additional $671.4 million in the 2022-2023 fiscal year will pay for 1,265 new positions and expand fire crews, air attack operations and additional staff relief, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

recent report by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy organization, found that federal firefighters were paid on average 32.51% below their state counterparts. In California, the disparity is just above 56%.

“I wish I had done it sooner,” Foye said of joining Cal Fire. “Best decision I ever made.”

Still, when asked if he would return to the federal agency should conditions improve, he said: “I would return in a heartbeat.”

As federal firefighters wait for Congress to act, their families say they are held hostage to the whims of lawmakers.

Janelle Valentine feels nothing but admiration and pride for her husband, who is a federal firefighter in the Gila National Forest.

She gave up her own career in early childhood education to move from Arizona to New Mexico when her husband was placed there, and now lives an hour away from the nearest grocery store while her husband spends nearly half the year fighting fires.

She said the sacrifice was worth it because they are both passionate about the Forest Service’s mission, but she wonders how much longer they can hold on.

“We’ve been hanging on by the skin of our teeth and wanting it to work out, but we can’t afford it at this point,” she said.

Valentine said they were forced to buy a trailer home for her husband to live in while on assignment because the government housing that was offered was dilapidated and moldy. They are barely able to cover the trailer’s cost and their mortgage while Valentine works on earning a master’s degree in social work.

“It’s such a low cost of living here, and we’re still drowning,” she said. “At what point do you just jump ship with something you love?"