As California braces for what could be the worst fire season in state history, the U.S. Forest Service is working to fill hundreds of openings as firefighters leave for different agencies that offer more money and stronger benefits.
The issue of subpar pay for federal firefighters was put into the spotlight this week, when President Joe Biden called it “outrageous” that some were working for $13 an hour.
“These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward fire and they deserve to be paid good wages,” President Biden said.
The President increased pay for federal firefighters to $15 an hour, plus a 10% bonus for firefighters working on the front lines.
“It is a monumental first step, but it’s just that. There are sweeping reforms that need to be made in order to maintain the level and quality of the workforce that is historically exhausted,” said Lucas Mayfield, Vice President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Grassland Wildland Firefighters is a nonprofit group that advocates for better pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters.
Mayfield was a U.S. Forest Service firefighter for 18 years. He served 12 of those years as a Hotshot, the elite group of firefighters that fight the worst fires in the worst possible conditions and terrain.
Mayfield said he left the Forest Service for a variety of reason, but admits the fire seasons wore on him and his family both mentally and physically.
“I was losing the ability to transition back to civilian life after fire seasons, which was affecting my mental health,” said Mayfield.
Mayfield said his career started in 2001 at $12 an hour. It took 18 years to earn $23 an hour as an Assistant Hotshot Superintendent. His firefighting counterparts with other agencies can earn up to double and triple the salary of federal firefighters.
In fact, during a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), pointed out federal firefighters earn roughly $38,000 a year. She compared that to the $70,000 dollar a year salary earned by firefighters with Cal Fire.
“It’s a travesty that needs to be addressed. These folks are giving up their lives, their families, and in some cases, their mental health to serve the public,” said Mayfield.
Meanwhile, in an email to NBC 7, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service responded to a question about current staffing.
“As of June 2021, the Pacific Southwest Region has the following firefighting resources ready to respond to wildfire: Firefighters: Region 5 has 94 percent of firefighters staffed for 2021. Summer hiring will continue until mid-July. 4354 of 4620 (266 vacancies) planned positions have been filled. Last year our surge target capability was 4750 wildland firefighters,” said Paul Wade, Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters said it will continue to push for higher wages and benefit parity, saying comprehensive legislative reform is moving forward, and the group is calling for an immediate 50% pay increase for those firefighters.