As wildfires rage, Biden will raise federal firefighter pay

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is set to temporarily raise pay for federal firefighters to ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour, according to a senior administration official.

Biden planned to announce plans for the higher pay — and other moves to boost U.S. wildfire fighting capacity and prevention efforts — as he holds a virtual meeting Wednesday with governors from Western states to discuss what is shaping up to be a torrid wildfire season. In addition, a huge swath of the Northwest is in the midst in one of the worst heat waves in recent memory.

Biden has expressed dismay at the starting pay for federal firefighters. Pay for new federal firefighters typically starts at $11 per hour to $14 per hour and they are overtime eligible, according to the Interior Department.

“That’s going to end in my administration,” Biden said during a visit last week to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a briefing on natural disaster prevention efforts. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”

Western states have been parched by severe drought and record heat that has burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,300 square kilometers) this year. That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned as well as more than 17,000 homes and other structures destroyed.

The new approach to firefighter pay was laid out by by an administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss the plan before Biden’s announcement.

The pay raise will come in the form of retention incentives and by providing additional bonuses to those working on the front lines. More experienced permanent firefighters could also be eligible for a 10% retention incentive. Temporary firefighters will be eligible to receive some incentive pay under the plan.

The official said the White House would work with Congress to pass legislation to permanently increase pay for federal firefighters.

The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department combined to employ about 15,000 firefighters. Roughly 70% are full time and 30% are seasonal.

The official said the White House also would use the governors’ meeting to detail plans to extend seasonal hiring of firefighters, hire additional firefighters and add surge capacity by training and equipping more federal employees and military personnel to support wildland fire fighting efforts.

U.S. wildfire managers had been considering establishing more full-time firefighting crews to deal with what has become increasingly a year-round problem in the West and pushing to make the jobs more attractive by increasing pay and benefits.

U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified last week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that firefighters need more pay in recognition of the growing workload.

Associated Press writers Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.