Congress appropriates $ 3.3 billion for wildfires

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Biparty infrastructure legislation raising firefighters’ wages to be signed by the president next week

The United States Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On Friday night, four months after the Senate passed a bipartisan $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with significant funding for wildfires, it was approved by the House of Representatives. About 0.3 percent, $ 3.3 billion, is spent on forest fire problems. The president said he would sign the bill next week after he was able to bring together members of Congress from both parties at the White House for an official signing ceremony.

The bill allocates funds to a few dozen forest fire issues, most of which are very important, but especially a few that have been dear to the hearts of federal staff fighting forest fires, especially the creation of a professional series of forest firefighters. This means they will no longer be cataloged as they are now in a forestry technician job description. Also included is a very large and necessary salary increase.

The passage of this law is huge. This is an important step towards improving several issues that have contributed to extreme problems in hiring and retaining federal employees fighting wildfires. Other organizations with much higher salary ranges compete, making it difficult to attract candidates to federal agencies. Many highly skilled and experienced firefighters left the land management agencies of the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, drawn to higher paying positions in CAL FIRE, municipal fire departments and private industry.

Baker River Bakeries
Baker River Hotshots, still image from their 2020 Fire Season video.

From now on, federal wildland firefighters will receive salary increases of $ 20,000 per year, or an amount equal to 50% of base salary – the lesser of the two. For example, a junior GS-3 firefighter who would earn $ 28,078 if he worked all year, would earn an additional $ 14,039 for a total of $ 42,117. A GS-9 earning $ 54,433 will get a raise of $ 20,000 bringing the base salary to $ 74,433.

The law authorizes $ 600 million for personnel management – those who fight fires.

  • The bill directs the OPM to develop a separate professional series of “wilderness firefighters”.
  • The DOI and FS will convert as many as 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to wildland firefighters who are permanent, full-time, year-round federal employees who will reduce hazardous fuels on federal lands for at least 800 hours each year.
  • The base salary of federal forest firefighters will be increased by the lesser of an amount equal to an increase of $ 20,000 per year or by an amount equal to 50 percent of base salary. This could be implemented if the job is located in a specified geographic area where it is difficult to recruit or retain a federal wildland firefighter.
  • Develop mitigation strategies for wildland firefighters to minimize exposure from environmental hazards while on duty.
  • Establish programs for permanent, temporary, seasonal and permanent wildland firefighters to recognize and respond to mental health needs, including care for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other provisions of the bill. (M = millions)

  • $ 20M, Satellite fire detection
  • $ 10M, Radio interoperability
  • $ 30 million, 911 reverse systems
  • $ 50 million, Pull-on firefighting modules for pickup trucks
  • $ 100 million pre-fire planning and staff training for forest firefighting and vegetation treatments
  • $ 20M, Data management for fuel projects and large fires
  • $ 20M, Joint Fire Science Program (research)
  • $ 100 million, Planning and implementation of projects as part of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
  • $ 500 million, mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
  • $ 500 million, wildfire defense grants for communities at risk
  • $ 500 million, prescribed fires
  • 500 million dollars, construction of fuel guards
  • $ 200M, Eliminate fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products
  • $ 200 M, Restoration after fire
  • $ 8 million, Firewood banks
  • $ 10 million, real-time forest fire detection and monitoring equipment

One issue to watch out for is how long it will take for the federal government to implement these changes. The pay rise is due to take place very soon, as federal land management agencies are hemorrhaging firefighters. Hopefully the new pay scale will start no later than early fiscal 2023, October 1, 2022, but sooner would be better.

On October 19, another bill was introduced in the House,
HR 5631, the Tim Hart Forest Firefighters Classification and Equal Pay Act (Rep. Joe Neguse) which has some overlap with the bill passed Friday. It contains many provisions, including salary increases with portal-to-portal compensation, creating a ‘wildfire firefighter national cancer and cardiovascular disease database’ to track chronic illness, mental illness leave, l ‘help with tuition fees, housing allowances and other items. A hearing on the bill was held on October 27, 2021. (More details on the legislation are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)

One of the issues that none of these recent laws address is insufficient funding for aerial firefighting – the use of tankers and helicopters to aid firefighters on the ground by dropping water. or a retarder to slow the spread of forest fires, which is necessary for homeland security. Federal agencies started the year with 18 large tankers and 28 large Type 1 helicopters under exclusive use contracts, when they are expected to have about double that number. And instead of the existing one-year contracts, they should be on 10-year contracts, which would make it easier for companies to acquire and maintain planes and personnel.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildfires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a fire student. View all articles by Bill Gabbert


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