President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the government will temporarily raise pay for federal firefighters to ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour.
Biden revealed the plans for the higher pay – and other moves to boost U.S. wildfire fighting capacity and prevention efforts – during a virtual meeting with Cabinet officials and governors from Western states, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, to discuss what is shaping up to be a torrid wildfire season.
“Last week, I learned that some of our federal firefighters were being paid less than $13 an hour,” Biden said, adding: “That’s unacceptable to me.”
Pay for new federal firefighters typically starts at $11 per hour to $14 per hour and they are overtime eligible, according to the Interior Department.
The new pay raise will come in the form of retention incentives and by providing additional bonuses to those working on the front lines. More experienced permanent firefighters could also be eligible for a 10% retention incentive. Temporary firefighters will be eligible to receive some incentive pay under the plan.
Still, the president said more work needs to be done to support firefighters, saying his administration plans to work alongside Congress in order to “permanently get federal firefighters a better deal,” as climate change continues to stretch the fire season year round.
Already, a huge swath of the Northwest is in the midst of one of the worst heat waves in recent memory.
Western states have been parched by severe drought and record heat that has burned more than 2,000 square miles this year. That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which saw a near-record 15,000 square miles burned as well as more than 17,000 homes and other structures destroyed.
Biden announced several other federal initiatives Wednesday that will address the worsening fire seasons, in part by extending the hiring of temporary firefighters and transitioning to a more permanent firefighting workforce.
The Department of the Interior has committed to hiring 210 new employees and making 575 existing career seasonal employees full-time employees, and will convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to year-round workers as fires have grown more severe.
The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department combine to employ about 15,000 firefighters. Roughly 70% are full time and 30% are seasonal. Those figures used to be reversed, but have changed as fire seasons have grown longer.
Biden also asked the assembled governors what the federal government can do to help their states get through this fire season.
“Making sure we have resources to train our national guardsmen and women prior to fire season…. should be universal practice nationwide,” Gov. Brown said in part, referring to Oregon’s catastrophic wildfire season last year that killed multiple people and saw thousands of homes burned.
An unprecedented Northwest U.S. heat wave slammed Seattle and Portland, Oregon, and officials say a dozen deaths in Washington and Oregon may be tied to the intense heat that began late last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.