Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen to take steps to help close the substantial pay gap between federal wildland firefighters and their counterparts in the state.
“To effectively deal with this threat now and in the future, it is critical for the federal government to address long-term issues with our firefighting workforce, especially the inequities in pay between federal and state wildland firefighters,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Secretary Vilsack.
Federal firefighter salaries today are only a little more than half that of their counterparts in the state, making recruitment and retention of firefighters difficult for federal agencies responsible for protecting federal forestland. Feinstein’s request came after she questioned Chief Christiansen at a hearing last week before the Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
In 2020, 70 percent of 7.1 million acres burned nationwide was on federal land. In California, 2.5 million acres of the 4.2 million acres of land that burned was on federal land, about 60 percent. However, despite being responsible for most of the land impacted by wildfire, federal agencies continue to pay firefighters far less and employ far fewer personnel.
Full text of the letter to Secretary Vilsack follows and is available here. Senator Feinstein also wrote a similar letter to Chief Christiansen, available here.
June 2, 2021
The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I am writing to you with great concern about our federal firefighting workforce as California is bracing for yet another dangerous wildfire season and more than 70 percent of the Western United States is experiencing severe drought. So far this year, California has experienced 2,878 wildfires that have burned 16,800 acres, more than five times as much acreage as had burned at this point last year. To effectively deal with this threat now and in the future, it is critical for the federal government to address long-term issues with our firefighting workforce, especially the inequities in pay between federal and state wildland firefighters.
The Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service has informed me that hiring and retention of firefighters is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high cost of living, increasing minimum wage, and the significant discrepancy in salary compared to other wildland firefighting organizations in California. For example, the starting salary for Forest Service firefighters in the Bay Area – which has a high cost-of-living – is $33,912, compared to a $58,668 starting salary for Cal Fire firefighters. This discrepancy has resulted in an inability to recruit and retain federal firefighters, which is especially problematic for California where the federal government owns 58 percent of the State’s forest land. In 2020, Cal Fire employed a peak of nearly 8,000 firefighters and expects to exceed that level in 2021. In contrast, the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service consistently has trouble retaining 5,000 firefighters on staff.
Please know that I am committed to working with you to reach a solution, and I consider it one of my highest priorities to ensure that California has the firefighters it needs to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to wildfire. Bridging the salary gap will help the federal government recruit and retain the staff necessary to fulfill its responsibilities on the land it owns, and provide aid to others when needed. I am grateful for your attention to this critical matter and look forward to your response.
United States Senator