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As Wildfire Season Looms, Firefighters Battle Low Pay and Low Snow

The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act could permanently raise federal firefighter salaries. It's not a perfect fix.

Wildland firefighters work long days, up to 16 hours, for dangerous work and historically low pay. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act could help secure better wages, but it's not perfect and Congress is also a wildcard when it comes to the proposed bill. Photo courtesy FEMA/U.S. Fire Administration
Wildland firefighters work long days, up to 16 hours, for dangerous work and historically low pay. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act could help secure better wages, but it's not perfect and Congress is also a wildcard when it comes to the proposed bill. Photo courtesy FEMA/U.S. Fire Administration
EDITOR'S NOTE: For context, we've adjusted this story to include that incident responders qualifying for "premium pay" under proposed WFPPA language are capped at $9,000 per year per responder.  This story has also been updated to reflect that, on Feb. 28, Congress passed yet another stopgap spending bill to fund some federal programs through March 8 and others through March 22. The spending bill will maintain wildland firefighter pay levels as provided through the Bipartisan Instructure Act through 2024. Meanwhile, proponents of the WFPPA are still working to pass a permanent pay raise into law.

by Bowman Leigh

As we creep through the first months of 2024, low snowpack across Greater Yellowstone could signal a tough fire season ahead. And that could spell trouble for the West as wildland firefighters fight for their paychecks.

On February 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its second water supply outlook of the year for Montana and parts of northern Wyoming, which pointed to record-low snowpack in watersheds throughout the region. Eric Larson, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and author of the report, said that snowpack could still rebound, but weather patterns will need to shift drastically to avoid low streamflows this spring.

“To rely on record-high precipitation for a recovery would not be ideal,” Larson said in an email. The report noted that the next two to three months will need “well above normal” precipitation in order to reach normal conditions by May 1.

Meanwhile, as they watch the weather and begin prepping for the coming wildfire season, federal firefighters around the country are waiting to see what their paychecks will look like. With Congress yet to approve a fiscal budget that holds the fate of federal firefighter income, some fear those who risk their lives each summer may drop their chainsaws and Pulaskis and walk away.


For more than a decade, federal agencies have struggled to recruit and retain firefighters who point to low pay as the most common barrier to staying on the job. As climate change contributes to longer fire seasons and larger, more severe fires, workforce capacity is becoming increasingly stretched. And as better paying opportunities appear elsewhere—such as with state, municipal or private fire crews—it’s becoming harder to attract entry-level firefighters and keep experienced personnel on staff.

Without a strong federal firefighting workforce, the U.S. is less prepared to battle wildfires, putting people, infrastructure and natural resources at risk. Federal agencies also stand to lose the institutional knowledge and leadership critical to training the next generation of firefighters.

“It’s not like you can just hire on, and within four or five years have expert knowledge and qualifications and skills to manage these large megafires,” said Kelly Martin, former chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite National Park and cofounding member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better firefighter compensation and holistic well-being. “But if you’re only making $16, $18, $20, $22 an hour after 10 years, people can’t see a career progression that keeps them engaged and employed as part of this expert workforce. And that’s really the issue we’re dealing with right now.”
The WFPPA would bring federal firefighter salaries more in line with firefighter compensation at state agencies, which a 2023 report found was, on average, nearly 33 percent higher than its federal counterparts. 
To encourage federal firefighters to stay on their crews, President Joe Biden raised the minimum hourly wage to $15 in 2021, and in 2022 provided temporary pay bumps to all federal wildland firefighters through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Federal fire service personnel each received a temporary boost in pay totaling $20,000, or 50 percent of their annual base salary (whichever was lower), and those payments were retroactive to October 2021, essentially raising federal firefighter wages over a two-year period. It was short lived, however, and by design. The pay bumps lasted until the end of the federal fiscal year, on September 30, 2023, in hopes of giving Congress time to pass a more permanent pay solution.
Kelly Martin fought wildland fire with the federal government for 34 years. Today, as a cofounding member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, she fights for fair pay and holistic well-being for firefighters. Photo by Sherman Hogue
Kelly Martin fought wildland fire with the federal government for 34 years. Today, as a cofounding member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, she fights for fair pay and holistic well-being for firefighters. Photo by Sherman Hogue
Ahead of the September expiration of funding and in an effort to avoid a “pay cliff”—along with an anticipated mass exodus of federal firefighters—lawmakers in July 2023 introduced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act.
    
The bill proposed a permanent raise in federal firefighter base pay, broadly ranging from a 42 percent increase for entry-level firefighters to a 1.5 percent increase for the highest level positions. In addition, the bill proposed a new “incident response premium pay” designation, which would allow firefighters to earn 450 percent of their hourly wage when assigned to a fire suppression, prescribed fire, or other qualifying incident lasting longer than 36 hours, with an annual cap of $9,000 per incident responder. The bill would also mandate a three-day period of “rest and recuperation leave” following 14-day assignments.
“It’s not like you can just hire on, and within four or five years have expert knowledge and qualifications and skills to manage these large megafires.” – Kelly Martin, cofounding member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, 34-year firefighter
But then Congress stalled out, and as of mid-February 2024 the alphabet-soup bill known as the WFPPA is still stuck in committee. Meanwhile, four continuing resolutions have been passed—late September, mid-November, mid-January and late February—to avoid a looming government shutdown that would affect everything from national parks and Medicare to food inspection and air travel. Each continuing resolution has extended the pay increases established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has in turn delayed a permanent decision on federal firefighter pay as well as the fiscal cliff facing the nation. The most recent continuing resolution was signed on February 28, giving lawmakers until early March to pass the WFPPA individually or as part of a larger government funding bill. To federal firefighters, a permanent pay increase is long overdue.


Josh Parker landed his first firefighting job in 2008 with the Snake River Hotshots, one of over 100 elite wildland firefighting teams employed by either the Department of Interior or the Department of Agriculture, which houses the U.S. Forest Service. The Snake River Hotshots, based in Pocatello, Idaho, are part of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the DOI that manages 245 million acres of public lands.

Parker entered the federal workforce during the Great Recession. Still, he was able to combine his firefighter wage with a seasonal position as a backcountry ski guide and use it to buy a home in a mountain town in 2012—a reality that is next to impossible today, especially for entry-level firefighters making roughly the same wage as, or less than, a McDonald’s employee.

A 41-year-old from Morgantown, West Virginia, Parker worked his way up the chain of command for 17 years and is now assistant superintendent of the Snake River
Josh Parker, assistant superintendent of the Snake River Hotshots, with his dogs Winnie and Eddy on days off, September 2023. Photo courtesy Josh Parker
Josh Parker, assistant superintendent of the Snake River Hotshots, with his dogs Winnie and Eddy on days off, September 2023. Photo courtesy Josh Parker
Hotshots
. He began noticing a shift in firefighter recruitment around 2015. “Our lists are shorter and shorter every year in terms of people applying for entry-level positions,” Parker said. He estimated that in the last five years, the number of qualified, entry-level applications has reduced by at least half.

Rookie firefighters with Snake River make $15.10 an hour, or about $31,000 annually, an amount that bumped up to more than $47,000 per year with the temporary increase from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But because entry-level positions are often seasonal and employees don’t work a full year, that base salary is cut in half, meaning that even with supplemental funding, new firefighters only made about $23,000 per year before overtime and hazard pay. 

Parker acknowledged that improved resources for mental health support were also critical, but said wages are the “lowest common denominator” when it comes to retaining firefighters. “It starts and ends with pay,” he said.

Proponents of the bill contend that the WFPPA would bring federal firefighter salaries more in line with firefighter compensation at state agencies, which a 2023 report found was, on average, nearly 33 percent higher than its federal counterparts. At the same time, new base pay under the WFPPA would still be lower than what firefighters were making overall as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Even if the WFPPA is passed, some firefighters say they may not return to the front lines due to the inevitable pay cut.
“The Paycheck Protection Act is truly trying to bring our wildland firefighters up to some reasonable level to keep them in the agency and doing the work that we do.” –Bob Beckley, National Vice President, NFFE, former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper 
While it may not be a perfect solution, those in support of the bill—including Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and the National Federation of Federal Employees—say it’s important to remember that these changes would be permanent rather than one temporary bump. The WFPPA’s proposed salary increases would also count toward retirement, whereas the supplemental funding did not. Once new base salaries are combined with overtime, hazard and the new incident-response premium pay, proponents like Montana Senator Jon Tester, one of the bill’s original cosponsors, say that it will enable federal firefighters to earn as much as they received through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and potentially even more.


Former smokejumper Bob Beckley, a California native who is now a national vice president for the NFFE, says that while the bill doesn’t necessarily achieve pay that’s on par with state agencies, it can help encourage federal firefighters to stick around.

“The Paycheck Protection Act is truly trying to bring our wildland firefighters up to some reasonable level to keep them in the agency and doing the work that we do,” said Beckley, who broke his back in five places jumping into a wildfire in 1985. “It’s not pay parity—we will never get to pay parity with [the WFPPA]—it just gets us up
Smokejumper Bob Beckley's jump partner Billy Martin looks out the open plane door as he prepares to jump into a wildfire on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana, circa 1983. Photo courtesy Bob Beckley
Smokejumper Bob Beckley's jump partner Billy Martin looks out the open plane door as he prepares to jump into a wildfire on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana, circa 1983. Photo courtesy Bob Beckley
to where people want to stay.”

The WFPPA isn’t the only bill in the wings seeking better pay for firefighters. The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act—named for a West Yellowstone smokejumper who died in 2021—is also pending before Congress. Known as Tim’s Act, the bill proposes a number of changes to federal firefighter compensation, from raising entry-level wages to at least $20 per hour, to offering housing stipends and tuition assistance.

Beckley describes Tim’s Act as the “wildland firefighter’s ultimate wishlist,” but said the bill’s comprehensive list of provisions also makes it harder to push through Congress. With the WFPPA, Beckley said, the goal was to break Tim’s
Smokejumper and the moon. Photo courtesy Bob Beckley
Smokejumper and the moon. Photo courtesy Bob Beckley
Act into “bite-sized chunks” in order to get reforms like permanent pay increases passed into law.

Martin, the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters cofounder, is also a former hotshot who worked in federal fire for 34 years. She’s frustrated by the lack of positive movement in Congress, especially when it comes to approving higher pay.

“What’s really maddening is that the people bearing this burden are the frontline workers, and they’re not making that much money,” Martin said. 

Now retired, Martin continues to be a voice for comprehensive workforce reforms. She was one of 50 wildland fire experts selected to develop recommendations for the future of U.S. wildfire policy as part of the Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission, a body established in 2022 by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The commission’s 340-page report, released in September 2023, contains 148 recommendations that include increasing wages and benefits for federal wildland firefighters.

“It doesn’t seem like it would be a stretch to say we absolutely need to compensate these jobs for the arduous, dangerous nature of this work,” Martin said. “There’s just been this tremendous foot dragging, either through Congress or through our agencies. I think people are just like, ‘I’m tired. I’m mentally and emotionally tired of this, of being strung along and promised a permanent pay fix, and I haven’t seen it yet.’”

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Bowman Leigh
About Bowman Leigh

Bowman Leigh is a writer based in Missoula and a graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Bugle magazine, Outdoor Life and on Montana Public Radio, and she is a former fire reporting intern for Montana Free Press.
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