Firefighter Pay: Something We All Agree on? Op-ed by Steve Ellis


Mad River Hotshots set out in the morning to work on the Smith River Complex in Oregon in September.

Many of our public policy issues are too important to fall prey to “death by partisan tomfoolery.”  Firefighter pay is one of them.  Probably too “small” in the eyes of some to be anything more than a political football; maybe, just maybe, it’s the right size to be influenced by folks like us reaching our to our Congressional folks, Tweet Xing, or however people think they might influence the process.  Here’s an op-ed by Steve Ellis of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees in the Bend Bulletin. If you can’t access the link, try different devices/browsers, I’ve had success with some but not others.

Wildland firefighter pay is not a partisan game

Our federal wildland firefighters need our help, and time is of the essence. The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act of 2021 provided funding to increase base salaries for federal wildland firefighters up to $20,000 or 50% of their current wages in an effort to address historically and comparatively low pay and widespread staffing shortages. However, without action, that funding expired in September 2023. Although Congress extended the current funding levels through the three separate stopgap measures, they have yet to pass a permanent solution, and the next congressional deadline for a solution is March 1. The National Federation of Federal Employees estimates up to half of wildland firefighters might possibly leave the federal service if Congress does not permanently secure their pay and benefits.

The National Association of Forest Service Retirees is dedicated to sustaining the Forest Service mission by adapting to the challenges of today and tomorrow. We believe Congress and our country should work to ensure that these brave men and women who put their lives on the fireline to protect human life, our communities, watersheds, wildlife and fisheries habitat, and other forest and rangeland values, should not have their employment fraught with financial insecurity and instability. Their commitment and sacrifice should allow them to provide a living wage for themselves and their families.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recently met with our organization’s board of directors and told us that many federal firefighters cannot afford housing, and some are even living out of their cars. We understand that such a pay reduction could amount to up to $20,000 for some of these firefighters, forcing them to leave personal and family decisions in the hands of Congress. Alternatively, many might leave the service for more assured compensation and stability. Solidifying these benefits would help to successfully implement the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy and the recommendations from the Congressional Wildland Fire Commission. At the most basic human level, it’s simply the right thing to do.

This is one of the factors that can contribute to a shortage of federal wildland firefighters, and the timing couldn’t be more important. While we may not yet be in the thick of wildfire season, agencies are actively finishing the recruiting for the upcoming season. Timeliness is important for meeting the hiring demands for the needs for this summer. This is not a United States issue alone. Last year the federal wildland fire community responded across Canada to support our northern neighbors and personnel have been assisting in Chile. Our international agreement with Australia and New Zealand is ready for implementation.

It could be argued that the longer Congress waits, the more our elected officials are putting our communities at risk. This shouldn’t be another “partisan game” over which party will get their way. We are talking about real communities that could be left without adequate services due to insufficient staffing, or firefighters leaving the service. We are talking about real men and women with a duty to provide for their families. We are also talking about putting our firefighters in harm’s way by stretching them too thin. We are conceivably talking about life-and-death consequences for firefighters and anyone who lives within the possible reach of wildfires as a result of Congress’ inaction. For Oregonians, that’s most of us.

It’s time for Congress to fix this issue, permanently.

Steve Ellis is chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees and lives in Beavercreek, Oregon.

15 thoughts on “Firefighter Pay: Something We All Agree on? Op-ed by Steve Ellis”

  1. One could say similar things about other ‘boots on the ground’ employees who are important to the Forest Service’s mission. Using Temps for jobs that are needed every year isn’t a good idea. When you have to train new people, every year, to do essential jobs, that is a waste of taxpayers’ money. It also leads to mistakes made in the field.

  2. I concur with Larry, for many of the challenges to recruiting and retaining firefighters are also found in non-fire positions. For example, if lack of affordable housing is keeping a unit from recruiting firefighters, it will certainly have the the same effect on recruitment for a GS-4 recreation technician employed for six months of the year. And that rec position most likely earns very little overtime. I am all for the current efforts to take care of the federal firefighting workforce. My only fear is that other positions will get left behind, creating a division between fire and other programs.

  3. I agree with Larry and Anonymous. Increasing only firefighter pay only drains employees away from other jobs in the agency. All FS employees are having trouble finding affordable, safe housing in the communities in which they work, especially the newer employees that we need to retain. This has been going on for more than 20 years in the communities that I have worked in and became more acute after the Forest Service sold off most of its housing in those communities. I have felt for more than 30 years that the GS-levels for folks in fire are too low given the responsibilities that they have. The division between fire and other programs has broadened in the last 20 years.

  4. I hate to keep beating a dead horse, but here is another unintended consequence of leadership failure. Back after 2001, there was a great emphasis on getting rid of FS quarters and facilities. Can’t have those old bunkhouses and residences draining our facilities and quarters budgets. Lots of smart folks, however, didn’t jump at the chance to cut off their own legs, so they kept a’hold of what they had. After all, those more remote RD’s have all the housing they need for employees (tongue in cheek, again)!

    Same goes for those Forests that retained their in-house road maintenance programs. Those Forests have the best transportation systems in the Agency! Everyone else get to use contract maintenance, enjoying a much lower quality of poorer conditions for travelers.

    I ain’t even gon’na bring up the replacement of “green fleet” …..

  5. Last time I checked those GS 9/11 ologist weren’t risking their lives on the job. They were teleworking. I do not hear about recreation employee’s suffering from work related injuries or occupational illnesses.

    I know those professions have weekends and holidays off, quality time with friends and family and their jobs pay very similar to the state or private sectors.

    Our fire folks, those GS 4’s and 5’s who are risking their lives, sleeping in the dirt and sucking smoke all day shouldn’t be risking a $20k pay cut. That incentive still isn’t enough to keep people from leaving fire.

    • I also risked my life, many times on wildfires, as a GS-4 and GS-5. When not fighting fires, I was risking my life being around heavy equipment, logging helicopters, falling trees and dodging log trucks. We often worked 6 days per week and 12 hours per day, on steep ground with dust and sweat. I did all of that, as a Temporary Employee, with minimal benefits and no chance for promotions.

      • Yes Larry but that was back when the FS was a “can do” Agency! When the dispatch came in and we were fire qualified, we went. My first temporary appointments had all the bells and whistles of OT, and HD if the fire wasn’t contained. If it rained, we went home; no leave, no flex, no credit or comp. The appointment allowed us to work, but only if the weather allowed us to work!

        Getting to and from the workstation was on your own time, not much travel time until you were “checked in” of the morning.

        I hear ya on log trucks, felling – skidding – yarding, helicopter logging, cable logging, mill deck scaling, all the fun stuff.

    • Criticizing non-fire employees (which is exactly what you were doing with the irrelevant telework comment) isn’t going to get a firefighter pay increase authorized. Also I see a lot of CA-1s and 2s and rec employees certainly do suffer from work related injuries.

      Focusing on why firefighters deserve a pay increase on their own merit is a better strategy than seeking to minimize the efforts of non-fire employees.

    • Every day in the woods is hazardous, regardless of what you are doing. When you consider the percentage of employees who are harassed and threatened in the course of carrying out their jobs, that is also hazardous. Recreation employees are generally required to work holidays and weekends (my husband was the district recreation staff and he always worked holidays and weekends and he always made sure his employees returned from the field each day.) Employees have to deal with people who are armed and many people in the woods have warrants out for their arrest. Employees have been kidnapped, robbed, and murdered and have died in vehicle accidents and when trees fall during my 30+ year career.

  6. Well done, Steve Ellis. I agree that FF pay ought to be increased, and that many more FFs ought to have year-round jobs and benefits. Some USFS and contractor FFs I talked with recently seemed happy making good money (base pay plus overtime, etc.) for 6 to 9 months and having enough to get by without work during the off-season. But I’d like to see these folks employed between seasons doing fuels work.

    FYI, here’s a USFS page on FF pay. Updated occasionally. Latest post is from January.


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