Biden raises pay for firefighters amid shortages and mental health challenges

The action will boost salaries as the country enters peak wildfire season

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Wednesday 22 June 2022 23:45
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Wildfires rage across Wharton State Forest, New Jersey

President Joe Biden announced a pay increase on Tuesday for federal firefighters as the summer wildfire season kicks into high gear.

The move comes amid reports that many wildfire-fighting positions remain unfilled, and a continuing mental health crisis for the profession.

The administration is also working on mental health and career resources for federal firefighters, a White House statement said.

This season’s wildfires are already off to a strong start, with over 3.2 million acres already burned so far in 2022, far more than the recent year-to-date average of around 1.3 million acres.

President Biden, in a statement addressing the new pay raise, said that this move will increase the amount of money going to firefighters, but added that “we know there is more work to do, especially as climate change fuels more wildfires.”

“I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks – and dignity – they deserve,” the President added.

Under the new rules, federal wildland firefighters will see an annual increase of either $20,000 or 50 per cent, whichever is less. This raise comes on the heels of Biden’s move last year to raise the minimum wage for all federal wildland firefighters to $15 per hour.

The pay raises will be backdated through October 2021 and continue through September 2023. Money for these raises comes from the infrastructure bill passed last year — which allocated $600m to wildland firefighter pay.

In addition to the salary increases, the White House highlighted a new programme supporting firefighter mental health and new structure for career advancement for wildland firefighters.

As of May, NPR reported that data from the US Forest Service showed that areas including California and the Pacific Northwest had hired at least 15 per cent fewer firefighters this season compared to last year total. In addition, BuzzFeed News reported this month that California was down around 1,200 wildland firefighters this year.

That may be unsurprising considering the mental health toll the job can take. A recent review found that the job has been associated with post-traumatic stress symptoms, as well as physical health concerns like lung function.

Just last week, CalMatters reported on the rampant mental health crisis among California’s wildland firefighters as crews battle the massive fires that have swept the state in recent years.

Over the past few decades, more and more of the US has been burning as wildfires spread. In some years, like 2015 and 2020, more than 10 million acres have burned — about a third larger than Belgium.

Other years have had individual massive and devastating fires, like 2018’s Camp Fire in California, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, or last year’s Dixie Fire, the largest single fire in California history.

Both of those fires had over 1,000 personnel assigned to help fight the blazes, CalFire reports.

Wildfire risk is projected to grow as the climate crisis continues. A recent report found that many properties, especially out West, are at serious risk of encountering a wildfire at some point in the next 30 years.

This isn’t just an American problem either — a recent UN report noted that wildfire risk is increasing around the world, in part due to the climate crisis and the associated consequences of drought, high temperatures and low humidity. Other factors affecting wildfires are land use change and forest management, the report adds.

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