As wildfires rage, Biden meets with Western governors, shares plans to raise federal firefighter pay
President Joe Biden is taking several measures to boost U.S. wildfire fighting capacity. He met Wednesday with governors from Western states, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, to discuss what is shaping up to be a torrid wildfire season.
President Joe Biden is taking several measures to boost U.S. wildfire fighting capacity and prevention efforts, and met Wednesday with governors from Western states, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, to discuss what is shaping up to be a torrid wildfire season.
“President Biden and his administration understand what our communities face and the immense magnitude of these challenges with hotter, drier and longer wildfire seasons in a climate-changed West,” Polis said in a statement.
In addition to wildfire threats, a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest is in the midst in one of the worst heat waves in recent memory.
Biden announced plans Wednesday to temporarily raise pay for federal firefighters to ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour as part of the response and prevention efforts. He has expressed dismay at the starting pay for federal firefighters, which is significantly lower than many local and state fire agencies.
Pay for new federal firefighters typically starts at $11 per hour to $14 per hour and they are overtime eligible, according to the Interior Department.
“That’s going to end in my administration,” Biden said during a visit last week to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a briefing on natural disaster prevention efforts. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”
Polis spoke virtually to Biden and other officials on Wednesday from the top of Pikes Peak at the new Pikes Peak Visitors Center, and according to a news release shared Colorado’s efforts for prevention and response to increasing wildfires. The state had its three largest wildfires in history last year.
The governor and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control released the 2021 Wildfire Preparedness Plan in April. Earlier this month, he signed SB21-258 to allocate $25 million to wildfire risk mitigation, including partnering on some efforts with the U.S. Forest Service such as having the state’s inmate workforce add mitigation work to their firefighting. Polis also has signed SB21-113 to buy a new Firehawk helicopter and provide funding to the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps Fund and impacted communities.
Western states have been parched by severe drought and record heat that has burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,300 square kilometers) this year. That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned as well as more than 17,000 homes and other structures destroyed.
The pay raise will come in the form of retention incentives and by providing additional bonuses to those working on the front lines. More experienced permanent firefighters could also be eligible for a 10% retention incentive. Temporary firefighters will be eligible to receive some incentive pay under the plan.
The meeting comes as the White House released a memo confirming its commitment to a clean energy standard, tax credits and 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, among other climate goals as officials pursue a two-track approach on infrastructure.
A memo by climate adviser Gina McCarthy and White House senior adviser Anita Dunn also pledges at least $10 billion to conserve and restore public lands and waters, address environmental injustice and create a Civilian Climate Corps (Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse is leading the push for it) to complete federally funded projects to respond to climate change and transition to a clean energy jobs.
The memo responds to criticism from environmental groups and other progressives who are frustrated that many climate-related initiatives were cut out of a bipartisan infrastructure plan announced last week.
“We know more work needs to be done, which is why President Biden will continue championing,” the memo says, both the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a separate, larger plan Biden and fellow Democrats aim to approve along party lines.
On wildfires, administration officials have pledged to work with Congress to increase firefighter pay and convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to year-round workers as fires have grown more severe.
The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department combine to employ about 15,000 firefighters. Roughly 70% are full time and 30% are seasonal. Those figures used to be reversed, but have changed as fire seasons have grown longer and more severe.
The White House is expected to use the governors’ meeting to detail plans to extend seasonal hiring of firefighters, hire additional firefighters and add surge capacity by training and equipping more federal employees and military personnel to support wildland fire fighting efforts.
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified last week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that firefighters need more pay in recognition of the growing workload.
Denver Post reporter Saja Hindi and Associated Press writers Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.