Analysis finds federal wildland firefighters can’t afford to live in most western counties

Firefighters during the Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon fire in May 2022. Photo by Rickie Cooper, Security Fire Protection District, Colorado.

An analysis of their salary and cost of living revealed that federal forest firefighters cannot afford to live in most western counties in the United States. The study was conducted by a seasonal forest firefighter with a background in government budgeting and financing and who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. It may shed light on some of the reasons firefighters are leaving federal agencies in high numbers and why Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said last week that only 50% of Forest Service firefighter positions are filled in some areas. from West.

The analysis of firefighters from GS03 to GS09 assumes that they work 680 overtime hours each year, which in a six-month fire season equals 26 overtime hours per week. It’s not uncommon for them to work over 1,000 O/T hours in what has become a normal year, but it can be significantly less in a year with very slow fires. Working very long hours away from home with a few days off is another reason why firefighters burn out, suicide rates are very high and family life is difficult.

If the analysis only took into account the base salary without overtime, it is likely that the results would have been very different.

A county was considered affordable if it fit into what was described as the common “50-30-20” personal budgeting strategy. This strategy states that 50% of a person’s income should be spent on basic necessities, 30% on non-essential purchases and 20% on savings/retirement.

Below are the first five paragraphs of the three-page analysis. You can download the complete Microsoft Word document here.


Advocacy groups like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and the National Federation of Federal Employees have spent the past few years highlighting the pay and retention issues facing wildland firefighters. These efforts paid off when a roughly 50% pay raise for federal wildland firefighters was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021.

However, federal wildland firefighters have yet to see that money hit their paychecks. One of the reasons for the delay is that the bill included language that the pay increase would only apply to “hard to recruit/retain” locations. Although Congress wanted this pay increase to apply to all wildland firefighters, reports indicate that the US Departments of Agriculture and Interior are looking for a “data-based” rationale that could exclude some firefighters. forestry from the expected increase. The U.S. Forest Service said it was conducting “an initial analysis comparing average federal and state salaries and purchasing power of firefighters (delineated by common wildfire geographic areas)…to determine a “specific hard-to-find geographic area.” recruit or retain”.

This analysis [conducted by the firefighter] compared salaries from 2022 GS03 to GS09 pay rates against three cost-of-living factors: the price of a one-bedroom rental, monthly food costs, and total monthly car ownership costs. Since wildland firefighters rely heavily on overtime and hazard pay, this analysis assumes that a firefighter works a six-month season with approximately 680 overtime hours but 0 hazard pay hours. Counties were determined to be affordable if less than 50% of salaries were spent on cost of living. Health, child care, utility and pension costs were not included in this analysis. See the end of the report for more details on the methodology.


This analysis revealed that the average cost of living in western counties was $2304 per month. The most expensive county with a significant presence on federal public lands was Skamania County, just northeast of Portland, Oregon, at $3,137 per month (Gifford-Pinchot National Forest). Sierra County, south of Albuquerque, New Mexico (Gila National Forest) was the cheapest at $1,742 per month.

The majority of western counties were not deemed affordable with a GS03-GS09 salary, as living expenses far exceeded 50% of wildland firefighter salaries. The following table shows what percentage of income a federal wildland firefighter at various GS levels would expect to spend on basic needs in the western United States.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildfires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. See all articles by Bill Gabbert


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