WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is raising wages for federal firefighters to no less than $15 an hour, as the White House seeks to put a spotlight on the growing threats of wildfires and heat waves exacerbated by climate change.
At the start of wildfire season, Biden met on Wednesday with governors, Cabinet members and business leaders to discuss how the United States can better prepare for what climate scientists say is a phenomenon that will only get worse as climate change fuels more frequent extreme weather events. The meeting comes a week after Biden, during a meeting with the FEMA chief, voiced surprise and outrage over federal firefighters making just $13 per hour.
To that end, Biden said on Wednesday his administration will provide “bonuses” to firefighters to bump up their pay this year to $15 per hour, while working with Congress to try to increase the wages permanently. A senior administration official said the goal was ensure that firefighters are “fairly paid for the grueling and risky work that they’re willing to take on.” The official did not specify where the money would come from or how the government would dole it out.
“These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages,” Biden said Wednesday. “You know that old expression, God made man that he made a few firefighters. Well, it’s true.”
The move comes as wildfires are raging across California, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado, fueled in part by a record-shattering heat June heat wave that has sent temperatures surging well above 110 degrees in some places, subjected millions of Americans to red flag warnings and thrust the challenges of extreme weather and climate change into the forefront.
Biden said drought conditions are expected to be worse than last year’s devastating fire season and that there are currently 36 uncontained fires burning already with about 9,000 firefighters deployed across the Western U.S.
“Climate change is driving the dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought,” Biden said. “We’re seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed and last well beyond traditional months and fire season. And that’s a problem for all of us.”
Biden’s meeting with governors and Cabinet members — some in person, some attending virtually — was to include a range of leaders from states particularly affected by wildfires and extreme heat, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week.
The boost in pay to $15 an hour is the most significant and immediate of an array of steps the White House announced aimed at improving recruitment and retention of firefighters while creating new avenues for the public to prepare and respond to wildfires.
The White House also plans to hire more firefighters and transition more existing firefighters from seasonal to permanent roles, a move the official said reflected the reality that wildland fires are increasingly occurring year-round, rather than only during the summer. Permanent firefighters will be eligible for retention bonuses of up to 10 percent, the senior official said.
The Biden administration also plans to improve early detection efforts through satellite monitoring and create more surge capacity for responding to fires through more equipment and aviation. And the federal government will invite more states in the Western United States to apply for “resilience grants” to fund projects for emergency preparedness and response, the official said.
Biden announced a $37 million federal grant to Sonoma County in California to support fire mitigation efforts there.
California’ Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, described the relationship between his state and the White House under the Trump administration as “sparing partners” where the former president repeatedly blamed the fires on the state having not cleaned up enough dead brush.
“We have an opportunity here to turn the page on the finger pointing rhetoric,” he said.