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Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about ways the Forest Service can help address inequities in pay between federal and state wildland firefighters, an issue that makes it more difficult to hire and retain federal firefighters.
Video of the exchange is available here, and a full transcript follows:
Senator Feinstein: “My main concern, Mr. Chairman and the distinguished senator from Alaska, is the salary situation. And let me put it right on the table. We have 19 million acres [of California forestland] under federal jurisdiction. State pay is $70,000, that’s what Cal Fire pays to a state firefighter. The United States Forest Service pays $38,000. That’s the differential. That’s the problem. And the loss from fire is just tremendous. I think that we have to move some way – in a bill – to make that change. And I would like to ask the question of the leader of the department: Chief, do you believe that this inequity in pay makes a big difference in California, which has 19 million acres of federal [forests]?”
Chief Christiansen: “Thank you so much for the question and for acknowledging what is a real gap in competitive pay. It’s very acute in California but we have competitive pay issues when those are compared to state, local and even the private sector. You named it, average for a U.S. Forest Service firefighter is $38,000 a year. State, local and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year, and their benefits are better. We have folks that are absolutely committed to the mission of the Forest Service, but at that gap in the wage, they are going on to work for other entities. So we really appreciate working with you to bridge this gap and to discuss we need more of a year-round workforce as well.”
Senator Feinstein: “Thank you very much for that, because I’ve been around a long time, was a mayor for nine years of a city, and I’ve never seen a pay differential this stark, as the difference between federal firefighter pay and state firefighter pay. California is paying with  million acres that burned last year; 10,000 structures burned, and half of those were homes. So the reason I’m here is to say we need to move and do something about it. So let me ask another question: Do you have the mobility, chief, to make the necessary moves to prevent this inequity from showing in actual firefighting?”
Chief Christiansen: “We certainly can bring a strong voice to this problem, but we have to work across the federal government, with the Office of Personnel Management and with, of course, other agencies with federal wildland firefighters, Department of the Interior being the largest, with the U.S. Forest Service. Secretary Vilsack has made a commitment to bring leadership to this and we really look forward to working with you here in Congress to address this issue.”
Senator Feinstein: “I don’t want to take more time, but I hope the members of this committee can see this differential, a starting salary of $38,500 as opposed to California [firefighters] being paid $70,000 and having a state where 58 percent of the forest is under federal jurisdiction. That’s the situation, those are the actual numbers, so it’s a real problem. And I would hope the committee would work with me and others and try to solve it.”