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Report: Federal firefighter pay, benefits lag behind state counterparts

 Wildland firefighters walk across a burned area
Aaron Kunz
Wildland firefighters walk across a burned area

Federal wildland firefighters do hard, dangerous work across the West, and they often do it for less pay than their state counterparts, according to a new report.

Written by now-finished graduate students at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Policy and Governance for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, the report shows that the salaries of federal firefighters are, on average, 32.5% less than that of their state-employed colleagues working equivalent positions.

“Overworked, underpaid and really putting their personal safety at risk,” is how Evan Pierce, one of the report's authors, described the typical federal firefighter today.

The research included interviewing 23 firefighters of varying experience. Pierce shared an anecdote from one firefighter who recalled, after working two or three straight weeks in central Oregon, seeing a sign at a McDonald's in town offering workers $19 an hour – "and you really start to question why you're putting your life on the line for that,” Pierce recounted.

Current and former firefighters shared their struggles with mental and physical impacts of the work, and with maintaining personal relationships and housing, among other challenges.

“I had to leave ... I had to make the decision to leave the federal service in order to put a roof over my head, have kids, take care of my dogs,” one anonymous interviewee told the research team. “Be everything except for a part-time husband, father, family man – and be a full-time firefighter. So I had to leave, and pay was a very large motivator of that.”

The pay and other benefit disparities detailed in the report present serious recruitment and retention challenges for federal agencies competing in an already tight labor market, according to Pierce.

“We know that fires are getting worse and worse in the face of climate change,” he said. “And that's going to create some severe problems down the road if we can't manage them.”

A number of the report’s recommendations are included in pending federal legislation known as Tim’s Act.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.