Secretaries Haaland, Vilsack announce implementation of new pay initiatives for wildland firefighters

Wildland firefighters, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of WIWF, Dixie National Forest, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in a press release issued Tuesday the implementation of President Joe Biden’s pay initiatives to recognize and support federal wildland firefighters.

The initiatives will increase the amount paid to approximately 3,500 firefighters with the U.S. Department of the Interior and more than 11,300 firefighters at the USDA Forest Service to ensure all firefighters are paid at least $15 an hour, the news release states.

Haaland said in the release that with climate change bringing longer fire seasons and more extreme fire behavior, it’s imperative to maintain a strong commitment to wildland fire preparedness and response.

“The brave women and men on the frontlines deserve fair pay for their work to protect our families, our communities, and our lands from the increasing threat of fire,” Haaland said in the release. “By improving pay, we will not only support our wildland firefighters in a challenging year but also improve our ability to hire and retain top talent.”

Interior currently employs roughly 5,000 wildland firefighters across the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Approximately 3,500 of those employees will receive $7.6 million under these initiatives, according to the release.

In this April 2021 file photo, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument, near Blanding, Utah, April 8, 2021 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The USDA Forest Service employs 14,500 wildland firefighters and, under these initiatives, more than 11,300 will receive an additional $24.3 million. The pay increases and awards will appear in firefighter paychecks on or around Aug. 24.

The pay increase will go into effect immediately, and wildland firefighters will receive a minimum of $15 an hour with a backpay date of June 30. To ensure the pay increase happens immediately, the departments will provide pay awards to all frontline firefighters that earn less than $15 an hour to ensure their pay will meet that minimum.

In addition, all temporary frontline firefighters will receive a $1,300 award and all permanent frontline firefighters up to GS-9 will receive an award equal to 10% of six months of their base pay.

The release states the Biden-Harris administration is working with Congress on much-needed, longer-term support, benefits, and work-life balance improvements for federal firefighters as well as wildland fire preparedness. Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda is intended to help better prepare communities and ecosystems against the threat of wildland fire, including investments made by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The Act contains $600 million for federal wildland firefighter salaries, expenses and the development of a distinct “wildland firefighter” classification series, as well as historic investments to restore and leverage nature-based infrastructure to protect communities and the environment.

The departments recently outlined updated wildland fire management goals, including supporting science and research into the effects of climate change on wildland fire, modernizing the firefighter workforce while creating good jobs and protecting the safety, and long-term wellbeing of wildland firefighters and incident responders.

In this file photo, U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter Megan Salyors and her teammates hike into a fire in 2011, exact date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, St. George News

Both departments are also investing in developing a stable, professional, permanent firefighting workforce capable of suppression activities and fuels management work on a year-round basis. In Fiscal Year 2021, Congress appropriated $29 million for Interior’s workforce transformation initiative.

The initiative will continue in Fiscal Year 2022 with the conversion of more than 700 positions from seasonal to full-time or from temporary to permanent and with the creation of an additional 235 positions. Over the last two years, the USDA Forest Service has converted 500 firefighting positions from temporary to permanent and plans to continue that year-round workforce growth.

The western United States is currently experiencing extreme wildfire conditions, driven by ongoing, severe drought in the region. On July 14, the national wildfire preparedness level was raised to its highest level, PL 5. This is only the third time over the past 20 years that it has reached this level by mid-July.

The fire outlook continues to predict drier, warmer conditions for the remainder of the summer and into the fall, which will continue to propel the severe wildfire season, the release states, adding that this new normal, characterized by longer and more extreme fire seasons, increases the risk to firefighter safety and mental health.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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