With possible pay cuts looming, federal wildland firefighters face an even more challenging summer
In June, a U.S. Senate committee heard testimony on recruitment and retention challenges in the federal wildland fire service.
Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera praised the large but temporary raises given to thousands of federal firefighters. That funding runs out at the end of September and she was asked what would happen if Congress takes no action.
“Well, I think it would be absolutely catastrophic,” Hall-Rivera responded. “I stated earlier, and I'll restate it, our union is telling us they would expect 30 to 50% of our firefighting workforce would leave.”
She added the agency would lose leaders with the most institutional knowledge.
"That would be incredibly difficult for us to replace because it takes years and years of experience to get that kind of knowledge and expertise.”
Several federal firefighters echoed Hall-Rivera’s congressional testimony in interview. The firefighters, who have worked in the West and other parts of the nation, say they’re distressed about the looming pay cuts.
Recently, some of them have helped in battling wildfires north of the U.S. border.
“We were up in Canada for a 21-day assignment in Alberta, which was just a super cool and unique experience,” said Brigham Snow, a third-year crew member of Southeast Idaho’s Snake River Hotshots. “They use a ton of helicopters.”
“We were on a big swamp fire, so that's like deep muskeg,” fellow Snake River third-year Rose Salerno said. “We were flying into our fire every morning and then jumping out into thigh-deep swamp water.”
After graduating with a degree in anthropology and Chinese from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Salerno did trail work that led to fire. Snow took an even more indirect route after studying math and economics at Amherst College.
“I actually worked in the private sector for a number of years, about three years after college, doing strategy consulting,” Snow said.
He added that his corporate background has been the “butt of jokes” on the crew.
A break from breaking even
Both found their way into firefighting as pay and other issues were getting more attention. And then last season came the temporary raises, which meant as much as $20,000 more per year for some firefighters.
“I want to say it was probably between [$10,000] and $15,000 when it was all said and done,” Snow said of how the raises impacted him.
“It makes you feel more secure with continuing with it,” Salerno said. “I think it made a big difference for a lot of people.”
On top of car payments and rent, as a seasonal employee Snow has substantial monthly health insurance premiums in the offseason – around $500. He said all of that “eats up a lot of that fire money.”
“The pay bonus ended up being essentially the money that I was able to walk away with when it was all said and done and actually save and invest in my future,” he added. “Which is obviously extremely important.”
While many were pushing for a broader reform measure, advocates are hopeful that legislation addressing the pay cliff will be passed in time. In July, Independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would permanently raise base pay.
This month, Democratic Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House, and both have bipartisan backing.
Meanwhile, federal firefighters are out on the line even though their raises could vanish in less than two months. Many – including the three firefighters interviewed for this story – have signed a petition demanding action from Congress.
Salerno said she and her colleagues face numerous immediate dangers. She noted the Craig Hotshots rookie who was struck and killed by a tree last year, one of hundreds of fireline fatalities in recent decades. There are also poorly understood long-term health risks.
“When you compare what is being risked and then be like, oh, we're going to get like a 40% pay cut, it feels kind of disrespectful to the community,” she said.
Salerno and Snow have found a great deal to love about the job: the adventure and public service, colleagues who become fast friends. But both agreed that unless Congress acts, there will be more departures – possibly even their own.
“Am I good doing this job and breaking even?” Snow asked. “Essentially funding my own health insurance and paying for this and that in the off season just to do the work? How important is that money?
“And money's important. That's the reality of life. So I don't have a solid answer for you, but I would consider leaving for sure. And I think a lot of my coworkers feel the same way.”
The draw of teamwork
Liz Skelly is in her eighth season as a wildland firefighter and this year she’s helping run a new women’s crew in the southeast.
She keeps coming back for the teamwork. Doing things -- as she puts it -- that would be “impossible” on your own.
“I've been a player of team sports my whole life, and that is really where I found the most fulfillment, to be honest,” she said. “I played every sport a woman can play growing up, in middle school and high school. In college, I played rugby, and then after college, I played roller derby.”
She’s spent much of her career in California, where she said her district has struggled to staff all their engines full-time, due to low pay and other challenges. That echoes the issues identified in a 2022 Government Accountability Office report on barriers to hiring and keeping firefighters.
Like Snow and Salerno, she said going off the pay cliff would make the situation even worse. She added, “[I]f this really does revert back to what we were paid before, people are just not going to be able to afford that.”
She loves fighting wildfires, and never thought it would make her rich. But it also asks a lot of her, her wife and other family.
“There's a very large chunk of the year where I have to tell my spouse, ‘I can't promise that I'll be at that.’ And she's done a really good job with that,” she said. “But it's definitely tough.”
And losing the temporary raises would force “tough conversations.”
“If I can't support my family with the amount of time that I have to spend away from my family, then it no longer makes sense to stay in this field,” she said. “My family and I got into this because I love it, but ultimately I still love the rest of my life just as much as I love doing what I do for a living.”
If the pay issue isn’t resolved – sparking the feared exodus – Skelly said “it would be absolutely devastating to the American West. I'll tell you that.”
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, KUNC in Colorado and KANW 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.