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White House to raise federal firefighter pay to $15 an hour

Biden focusing on increased threats from climate change as wildfires, heat waves beset parts of the U.S.
Firefighters in California save American flag from Lake Fire flames
Posted at 7:33 AM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 08:33:52-04

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 on Wednesday plans to meet 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.

“That's a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters,” Biden said at the time, adding: “That's going to end in my administration.”

To that end, the White House on Wednesday will announce it 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 Biden administration official said. The 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.

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’s meeting with governors – 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 plans to announce 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. A grant for “pre-disaster mitigation” for one state that has already applied was expected to be announced Wednesday.