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Thousands of federal firefighters face a looming pay cut. How much is up to Congress

In this Sept. 19, 2021 file photo, flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif.
Noah Berger
In this Sept. 19, 2021 file photo, flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif.

Federal wildland firefighters were on the frontlines of some of the harshest wildfires to hit the U.S. and Canada this summer. But as Congress is inching towards its Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, those firefighters stand to lose half their salaries.

And whether or not the government makes a deal, rent is due Oct. 1.

I can't afford to live on 40 hours a week"

That's because last year, the bipartisan infrastructure law provided a temporary pay bump to these federal first responders of $20,000 or 50%, whichever was less. The money is estimated by officials to last about two years and was retroactive to October 2021.

"We're going to finish this season out, but there's going to be a lot of people who don't come back," predicted Rachel Granberg, a wildland firefighter in Washington State. "Even with that infrastructure money, people are still leaving and it's only going to get worse once that money runs out."

But the money was always expected to run out, and federal officials relied on Congress to draft and pass into law a permanent pay fix that would increase the base pay of these firefighters. While there is one bipartisan effort in the Senate, Republicans in the House have not been able to coalesce around a solution.

"All of the fixes that have been proposed don't match the amount of money that we get thanks to the infrastructure bill," Granberg said. "So even if something does pass, we're still going to see a pay decrease, which is really frustrating."

Wildland firefighter Rachel Granberg takes a selfie in her uniform
/ Rachel Granberg
Rachel Granberg
Wildland firefighter Rachel Granberg takes a selfie in her uniform

Granberg's base wage is $37,000. Like many wildland firefighters, she relies on overtime hours to supplement the rest of her paycheck. The pay bump from the Infrastructure Law brought her up to almost $50,000.

"I can't afford to live on 40 hours a week," she said.

Still, officials and firefighters are urging for some action to be attached to the larger effort to fund the federal government. Congressional staffers estimate the Interior Department will run out of money on Sept. 30. As of Sept. 13, the Forest Service reports, at most, enough funding to cover the cost of just two pay periods after the end of the fiscal year.

"Put simply, without a permanent pay fix that creates certainty for our federal firefighters at both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, we will continue to lose these employees to other, higher paying jobs which leave communities, wildlife and public safety in jeopardy," said a spokesperson for the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service.

USDA warns employees they could see their pay cut in half

The USDA began warning its employees of a pay cliff, meaning when pay would sharply and suddenly drop, earlier this year. In materials obtained by NPR, USDA warned entry-level employees could see their base pay drop nearly $20,000, from just under $60,000 to $40,000.

"It really comes down to the fact that so a lot of our firefighters are our entry-level firefighters make $15 an hour and even our more senior firefighters do not make a living wage," said Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera in an interview. "If they don't have a solution in hand that they can depend on, they have job offers in hand, and they will take them — and they should."

Hall-Rivera said the pay supplement allowed workers to decrease their need to work overtime.

"It was a game changer for a lot of people. And we are now coming to a time when that is going to go away and in its place, firefighters don't know what to expect," she said in an interview. "So right now there's nothing."

Pay issues are not new to federal fire forces, which for over a decade have faced staffing shortages and low morale. In 2021, President Biden increased federal wildland firefighter wages to a $15 an-hour minimum. Still, some state outfits like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the Unified Fire Authority in Utah will pay upwards of $50,000 base salary to someone even without experience.

The threat of a pay cliff has many worried staffing shortages could worsen in the coming year. Even with the supplemental wages, many reported staffing issues this year. DOI hired more than 87% of the goal for firefighters. The Forest Service said it hit 99% of its hiring target in July.

But the numbers don't always match the story on the ground.

A prescribed fire burns during a wildland firefighter training June 9, in Hazel Green, Ala.
George Walker IV / AP
A prescribed fire burns during a wildland firefighter training June 9, in Hazel Green, Ala.

"I can tell you where I am at is not fully staffed," said Ben McLane, a wildland firefighter captain. He noted his current $70,000 salary will drop to $50,000 after the money runs out while someone at CalFire with his experience could make $120,000.

"There are engines parked that we can't take to wildfires because we don't have the amount of people to even minimally staff what we have on paper," he explained.

McLane, like others who spoke to NPR, reported fire truck engines and equipment not being used this year because the staff was not there to operate them. Others told NPR they have been moved around to account for shortages in other areas, and have also seen their own crews operate with limited personnel.

Hiring numbers reported by agencies will reflect hires made at a given time but not if crews are still minimally staffed and won't account for employees who quit or never show up.

"We did well on our goal, but we're going to have shortages everywhere because the fact of the matter is we don't have the number of firefighters we need to deal with what we're seeing in fire years," Hall-Rivera said.

The pressure mounts each year as workers fear worsening fire seasons across North America. This year, for example, over 2,200 federal firefighters were deployed to Canada — the largest mobilization of U.S. resources to Canada in the 40-year history of an agreement that allowed for shared personnel.

A DOI spokesperson told NPR that before 2023, the most robust exchange of U.S.-Canada resources occurred in 2020 when nearly 600 firefighters and incident management personnel supported wildfire suppression operations in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Officials say firefighting isn't as seasonal as it used to be, in part due to climate change, and that leaves the workforce behind without an updated pay or benefits structure to accommodate the new reality.

"We're asking people to do a very different job in a very different way than when how we fight fire was conceptualized. And it truly was kind of the summertime for that and we're just not in that place anymore," Hall-Rivera explained.

Bipartisan support in the Senate, while the House is in limbo

The idea of increasing firefighter pay has generally broad bipartisan support. Bills in both the House and the Senate have been introduced by members of both parties. Still, an agreement has not been reached.

Janelle Valentine is the wife of a federal firefighter of 10 years and she is spending days lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass a bill in any stopgap effort to avert a government shutdown.

"If the pay cliff is not mitigated, we'll very quickly lose our home," Valentine said, noting that her husband received $750 extra each paycheck, which barely covers their monthly mortgage.

With two young kids in the home, and living in a rural area of New Mexico an hour away from childcare, Valentine has opted to pursue higher education from home as opposed to seeking a job. But she's not just taking student loans out to pay for school.

"I actually took out $10,000 in student loans this school year to mitigate those losses if they happen," Valentine said. "We'll start having to use the loan money for housing payments and then he'll start looking for a new job."

That new job would likely not be in firefighting — New Mexico's state agency doesn't pay as high as others, either, Valentine said.

In the Senate, lawmakers have garnered around the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would permanently increase base pay for federal firefighters.

But in the House, Republicans and Democrats have separate efforts. While some acknowledge that DOI will run out of money by the end of the month, others take issue with how the Forest Service has calculated when it is set to run out of money.

"We all are in agreement they need a long term solution but in the short term firefighters are saying they are going to quit in two weeks," said a Republican staffer familiar with negotiations, adding that the Forest Service recently calculated it would have money for two additional pay cycles instead. "A permanent solution is not mutually exclusive from transparency questions."

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., introduced his own measure, which would keep the base pay increases from the infrastructure law but only for two more years.

Meanwhile, firefighters on the ground are still working and a pay cliff, they said, will eventually affect them.

"There's just the uncertainty of what my income is going to be," said a wildland firefighter who asked to be kept anonymous because of a pending job offer could be withdrawn for publicly criticizes the legislation. They said they also stand to lose up to $20,000. "Even with the Paycheck Protection Act. We're still going to see a pay cut with that. But we don't even know if that's going to be passed. So I think it's kind of coming down to how much of a cut are we going to be seeing?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.