Evan Vucci / AP

White House Moves to Bolster Wildland Firefighter Pay

President Biden previously expressed outrage that some federal firefighters make less than $15 per hour.

The Biden administration last week took temporary steps to boost the pay of federal wildland firefighters and indicated it will work to increase their compensation more permanently.

At a White House event last month, President Biden expressed dismay that federal firefighters make $13 per hour, less than the $15 per hour he has ordered the Office of Personnel Management to examine making the minimum wage across the federal government.

“I just realized—I didn’t realize this, I have to admit—that federal firefighters get paid $13 an hour,” Biden said. “That’s going to end in my administration. That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”

As part of a series of announcements on how the federal government is preparing for wildfire season, Biden last week announced enhancements to wildland firefighters’ pay this year to ensure that no federal firefighter makes less than $15 per hour.  Permanent firefighters paid at a GS-9 level or below will receive a 10% retention incentive this year, while temporary employees will receive a $1,000 Spot/Star award.

“Today we’re announcing what I still think is not enough: this year we’re going to provide retention incentives that [are] going to ensure federal wildland firefigthers are making at least $15 an hour and provide for additional 10% bonuses for those working on the frontlines,” Biden said. “But a one-time boost is not enough. These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages.”

Biden said his administration would work with Congress to pass legislation to permanently increase federal firefighters’ pay to at least $15 per hour, and expressed support for other bills aimed at improving their benefits and work-life balance, like the legislation that would allow federal firefighters to more easily trade shifts with each other without triggering overtime pay rules.

In addition to provisions directly impacting federal firefighters’ paychecks, Biden announced that the federal government will engage in more hiring to ensure the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department can meet the demands of wildfire season. OPM has approved an extension to extend the two agencies’ seasonal employees’ terms so that they can work additional hours. And the Interior Department has committed to hiring 210 new employees and converting nearly 600 career seasonal employees to full-time status this fiscal year.

In a statement, National Federation of Federal Employees National President Randy Erwin, whose union represents thousands of wildland firefighters, applauded the White House’s efforts to boost firefighter pay and personnel.

“Our wildland firefighters serve on the frontlines of increasingly dangerous and lengthening fire seasons for months on end, far away from their families and homes, working and living in uncomfortable conditions to spare the lives and property of others,” Erwin said. “They deserve so much more than they receive, and many of their personal stories are heartbreaking. As the fire seasons worsen year after year, it is reassuring to know that the president is dedicated to assisting our wildland firefighters by improving upon the poor pay, staffing and workforce issues plaguing the federal fire service.”