WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his administration will boost federal pay for firefighters on the front lines of blazes that are intensifying across the West, part of a broader effort to confront what could be another devastating fire season.
“The truth is, we’re playing catch-up,” Biden said during a virtual meeting with Cabinet officials and western state governors. “This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it. We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters.”
Biden complained that firefighters make as little as $13 an hour — “Come on, man, that’s unacceptable” — and said the administration would deliver bonuses to bring salaries to at least $15 an hour.
Even that, he conceded, was not enough. Biden said his administration would work with Congress on more long-term solutions, such as changing part-time seasonal firefighting jobs into full-time positions, making them more attractive for workers and reflecting the reality that wildfires have become a year-round threat.
“These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire,” Biden said. “And they deserve to be paid and paid good wages.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom praised Biden for his focus on wildfires and climate change, saying that California and Washington, D.C., had previously been “sparring partners, not working partners.”
“I’ve been waiting 4 1/2 years to hear a president say what you just said,” Newsom said, in a reference to former President Donald Trump, whom he did not name.
Trump had denied any link between intensifying fires and climate change and blamed California for failing to “clean your forests” of combustible vegetation to prevent and stop wildfires.
Wednesday’s meeting was much like the briefings presidents have received for years at the start of hurricane season on the East Coast. Biden indicated such discussions about wildfire prevention and response likewise would become an annual event, reflecting growing concerns among experts and public officials that drought conditions and searing temperatures in the West were becoming the new normal.
This year’s fire season could outpace last year’s, which was the worst on record. Blazes have already ignited around California, where dry vegetation has left large swaths of the state primed to explode into flames.
“We’re in as high risk of a starting condition as we could ever expect,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University professor who studies climate change and wildfires.
The California National Guard deployed a month earlier than it did last year, sending helicopters to drop water on the Lava fire near Mount Shasta. It’s the largest active fire in the state, burning more than 13,000 acres since sparking June 24.
At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have been wrestling with staffing problems exacerbated by low pay, competition from state and local fire departments and exhaustion from last year’s fire season.
More than a month after seasonal hiring typically would have ended, the federal government is still trying to fill vacant positions on hot shot crews, the most elite and experienced firefighting teams. Although these crews are venerated for leading the attack against the most difficult fires, some have had so many veteran firefighters quit that they’ve been downgraded to a lower-ranking status.
Biden’s approach will likely buoy experts and advocates who have been calling for a shift in how the federal government approaches wildfires.
“We’re at a point where we’re simply going to be overwhelmed year after year going forward, given the current systems we have in place,” said Jim Whittington, an expert in wildland fire response. “We really need to look at the way we staff and work wildland fires, the way we fund them and the way we take care of our people. We need a full reset.”
As part of that reset, Whittington and others say, firefighting should become a full-time job at higher pay.
Currently, the federal government fills its ranks each summer with thousands of seasonal firefighters who don’t get health insurance and are laid off after about six months. Some of these workers struggle at the end of the season as months of stress take their toll.
“We also need better mental health support for wildland firefighters,” Whittington said. “Too many face a crisis when they are laid off.”