Firefighters quit US Forest Service for better pay and benefits

LOS ANGELES — Thousands of federal wildland firefighters could walk off the job if Congress fails to pass a permanent pay raise, officials and advocates have warned amid an already scorching summer that could lead to an explosion of forest fires later in the year.

According to the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“It’s an absolute crisis,” said Max Alonzo, a federation organizer. “The majority of people I know have already applied for other jobs and they are waiting for this.”

The situation has gotten so bad that the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California recorded 42 quits in 48 hours in May, officials said.

Many of those firefighters left for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which is considered a job of choice thanks to its generous salaries, solid benefits, and manageable work schedule that recently negotiated up to a 66-hour work week. from 72 hours.

“Soon there won’t be anyone left,” said Steve Gutierrez, a former champion who recently left the Forest Service after 15 years to advocate for firefighters through the federation. “We train them and Cal Fire takes them.”

Aaron Foye, who resigned from the San Bernardino National Forest last September for an engineering job with Cal Fire, estimated that staffing shortages were so severe when he left that only one in four fire crews were occupied seven days out of seven.

“I felt like I was being selfish working in the Forest Service because I wasn’t really providing enough for my family,” Foye said. “All of our top Forest Service talent has bled over the past two years.”

Lawmakers this year introduced bills in the House and Senate that would codify an existing pay raise under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which temporarily increased wildland firefighter salaries by up to $20,000.

Without a permanent solution, this increase is set to expire at the end of September and reduce the salaries of thousands of federal firefighters.

“We absolutely need Congress to act and put in place a permanent wage solution,” Deputy Forest Service Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera said. “If we’re not able to do that and we’re not able to give them that certainty going forward, they’ll have to look elsewhere for a position that gives them that certainty.”

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of six senators introduced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would maintain the current pay increase and help ensure the federal government can recruit and retain a sufficient firefighter workforce to coming years.

In May, a bipartisan bill was reintroduced in the House that would similarly increase wages and address mental and physical health benefits, housing, retirement and tuition assistance for firefighters. It was referred to the forestry subcommittee in June.

Federal forest firefighters have long warned that without a permanent pay raise, their ranks would dwindle even as wildfires continue to increase in intensity and frequency across the country and beyond.

The expertise of federal firefighters is unmatched compared to the experience of those working for city and state agencies, which may not include hiking through rough and dangerous terrain or dropping helicopters in the middle of a forest. Federal firefighters are also able to cross national and international borders, including joining the Canadian Forces this year to fight historic fires in the northern United States.

Still, the Forest Service has struggled in recent years to fill vacancies amid rising inflation and severe drought, officials said. In 2021, during one of the most destructive fire seasons in history, the agency also faced dwindling water, food and communications supplies, in addition to low staffing levels.

This year, the Forest Service has 11,150 wildland firefighters on board nationwide, or 99 percent of its goal of 11,300, the agency said.

For many men and women fighting fires on the front lines, the high cost of living means more stress for them and their families, and they are beginning to seek relief.

At Cal Fire, the state added 37 fire crews to its staff in 2022 after adding 16 in 2021. An additional $671.4 million in fiscal year 2022-23 will pay 1,265 new positions and expanding fire crews, air attack operations and additional personnel relief. , according to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office.

A recent report by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy organization, found that federal firefighters were paid an average of 32.51% less than their state counterparts. In California, the gap is just over 56%.

“I wish I had done it sooner,” Foye said of coming to Cal Fire. “Best decision I’ve ever made.”

Still, when asked if he would return to the federal agency if conditions improved, he replied, “I would be back in a heartbeat.”

As federal firefighters wait for Congress to act, their families say they are being held hostage by the whims of lawmakers.

Janelle Valentine has nothing but admiration and pride for her husband, who is a federal firefighter in the Gila National Forest.

She gave up her own career in early childhood education to move from Arizona to New Mexico when her husband was placed there, and now lives an hour from the nearest grocery store while her husband spends nearly half the year fighting fires.

She said the sacrifice was worth it because they are both passionate about the Forest Service’s mission, but she wonders how much longer they can last.

“We’re clinging by the skin of our teeth and want this to work, but we can’t afford it at this point,” she said.

Valentine said they were forced to buy a trailer for her husband to live in while on assignment because the government housing that was on offer was dilapidated and moldy. They are barely able to cover the cost of the trailer and their mortgage while Valentine works toward a master’s degree in social work.

“The cost of living is so low here, and we’re still drowning,” she said. “When do you jump ship with something you love? »

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