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Federal firefighters got a big raise, but it could go away this fall

E. Hewitt/Idaho Panhandle National Forest

The Biden administration is asking Congress to make permanent a temporary pay increase for firefighters.

The Biden administration says it has hired about 10,000 people to patrol the fire lines on federal land this season with plans to bring another thousand aboard. Those firefighters will be paid more than their predecessors from two years ago, as much as $20,000 more.

But their raise is temporary, part of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. The raise was authorized in 2022, but made retroactive to fall 2021. It's due to sunset at the end of September.

“The only way that we’re going to attract people to this challenging and hazardous work is to pay them fairly," said Deputy Forest Service Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, speaking last week at a U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. Her agency wants to make the firefighters’ raise permanent, but needs Congress to authorize it.

“The workforce reforms proposed in the president’s fiscal year 2024 budget requests and supporting legislation will increase federal and tribal firefighters’ pay, invest more in their mental and physical health and well being, improve their housing options and expand the number of permanent firefighters," she said.

Hall-Rivera says a permanent raise would lift federal firefighters’ compensation to a level that’s competitive with their peers in many states and the private sector.

Former federal firefighters say low pay is the reason many of them leave their jobs to work for other agencies, according to a survey released last fall by the General Accounting Office. The agency's Cardell Johnson says the survey found pay is the top challenge for Forest Service recruiters, but just one of many.

“It has been reported that some firefighters are living out of their cars because they cannot afford housing," Johnson told the Senate committee.

"Duty stations that are more remote may not always provide easy access to basic services such as grocery stores or even broadband coverage, which helps firefighters stay connected with their families while they’re away," he said.

The GAO reports firefighters also mentioned lack of career advancement opportunities, poor work-life balance and mental health as reasons why people leave the federal fire service.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.