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New Forest Service policy will temporarily ease housing costs for some employees

Forest Service Firefighters
Kari Greer
U.S. Forest Service
The cost of housing has long been an issue for wildland firefighters, many of whom end up living in vehicles or camping on days off to avoid those expenses.

High housing costs have been a major issue for federal wildland firefighters and other U.S. Forest Service employees for years. The agency has now taken a step to ease that problem – at least temporarily for some federal workers.

This week, the agency announced it would be refunding half the cost of rent for all Forest Service employees up to a certain pay grade (GS 10, step 10) and living in government-owned housing.

The temporary action is retroactive to March 10, and will last through the end of September. Up to 5,500 employees are expected to benefit, according to the agency, which has nearly 30,000 total employees.

In a message to the agency, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore thanked employees for sharing their experiences and suggestions about housing difficulties.

“We heard you and are using that information to work with employees and the department to find solutions to the housing affordability crisis,” he said in a written statement.

Wildland firefighters have been particularly impacted by housing costs.

“You could be in federal housing for as little as four days a month as you travel the country responding to fires, and then you pay a daily rate which comes out of your paycheck,” said Luke Mayfield, president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “And with the rental increases that we've seen over the past few years, there's times where you're paying more in rent than you're getting paid in base pay.”

Many firefighters report living in their cars or in campgrounds due to high housing costs. The National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), which lobbied for the measure, said the Forest Service is “also exploring options to provide housing relief for those renting from private housing providers in high cost of living areas.”

NFFE also said the agency “will be investing additional funds to address the deferred maintenance backlog and improve the condition of Forest Service-owned housing.”

“They've fallen in disrepair and you have rodent infestations, asbestos and you're living in unlivable conditions and paying a theoretical market rate for a house that really no one would live in,” Mayfield said of the conditions seen in some government-owned housing.

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.

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.