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Biden boosts pay for federal firefighters as wildfire season heats up

The infrastructure law has enabled Biden to give firefighters a bigger paycheck, but it may be too late to address this year’s shortages

A United States Forest Service firefighter keeps a close eye on flames during a back fire operation on the Whittier Fire near Bee Rock off Highway 154 near Santa Barbara, Calif., in July 2017. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via Reuters) (Handout/Reuters)

President Biden is giving federal wildland firefighters a significant raise for the next two fiscal years, as agencies face difficulty hiring in western states and an already-severe wildfire season is underway.

Funding for the pay increases will come from the $1 trillion infrastructure deal the president signed last year. That legislation authorized about $600 million for increased pay that would go to firefighters based in parts of the United States where “it is difficult to recruit or retain a federal wildland firefighter.”

Instead, the Biden administration announced Tuesday that everyone will receive larger paychecks. For the next two fiscal years, agencies will increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000 per year, or 50 percent of their current base salary, whichever is lower. Firefighters will also receive back pay, beginning from October 2021.

“But we know there is more work to do, especially as climate change fuels more wildfires,” Biden said in a statement. “I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve.”

In a news release, White House officials described the pay raises as a necessary investment in national security and the people on the front lines of increasingly severe wildfire seasons, which climate change is turning into wildfire years. Pay for federal firefighters has lagged behind the salaries offered by some states and municipalities, making it difficult for the Forest Service and other agencies to recruit and retain employees.

Last month, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore told a Senate subcommittee that this agency had hired 10,184 firefighters, about 90 percent of the 11,300 needed for this year. In some parts of the country, including California, Oregon and Washington state, staffing levels are as low at 50 percent.

The White House announcement marks the second time the administration has given federal firefighters a temporary raise. When Biden took office, federal firefighters typically earned about $13 an hour, less than the minimum wage in some states. Last June, he signed an executive order raising pay for federal firefighters so no one was making less than $15 per hour.

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