Biden says he’ll increase the ‘ridiculously low’ pay of federal firefighters, who can sometimes make $20,000 less than state firefighters

California fires
Members of firefighters walk in line during a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

President Joe Biden promised on Tuesday to increase the wages of federal firefighters across the country, who he said make “ridiculously low” wages while fighting deadly fires.

“The last few days alone, we’ve seen droughts and wildfires in the West,” said Biden. “I didn’t realize this, I have to admit – that federal firefighters get paid $13 an hour. That’s going to end in my administration.”

Federal firefighters are paid according to the Federal General Schedule payscale. Entry-level pay is determined by “the level of difficulty, responsibility, and qualifications required” by the job.

Starting salaries may take education level, military experience, and location into consideration, ranging from $19,738 to $48,978. New Jersey, California, Washington, New York, and Hawaii are the top-paying states for firefighters.

Nationwide, the average yearly salary for federal firefighters is approximately $55,000, with local firefighters making slightly more at around $57,500. In 2019, the U.S. median household income was $68,703.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, a Forest Service firefighter’s starting salary is more than $20,000 less than the starting salary for Cal Fire firefighters, Senators wrote in a letter to Congress on Tuesday. This is despite the fact that the federal government manages a majority of California’s forest land.

In the letter, Senators wrote that while the annual wildfire season grows longer and more intense, agencies are struggling to hire and retain federal firefighters due to low pay. The proposed bill language would restructure the federal firefighter pay grade to be comparable to wildland firefighters employed by state and local governments.

In 2020, 70% of the nationwide acreage burned by wildfires was on federal lands.

The federal budget to pay firefighters comes through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI). Their combined wildfire management budget has nearly doubled over the past ten years, with a budget of $6.11 billion appropriated in 2020.

The 2021 wildfire season is estimated to exceed last year’s record number of fires. Biden will hold a meeting next week to discuss preparing the nation for heat, wildfires, and drought.