(Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday will announce wage hikes and bonuses for federal firefighters ahead of a meeting with western state governors who may face a record number of forest blazes this year because of drought and high temperatures.
Wednesday’s virtual meeting, which will also include cabinet officials, is designed to show that the White House is treating wildfires – which have grown by at least 100 incidents each year since 2015 – are as much of a national emergency as hurricanes, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.
This year’s fire season could outpace last year’s, the worst on record, experts say. The threat comes as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management face staffing shortages accelerated by low pay, and competition from state and local fire departments.
The U.S. government employs some 15,000 firefighters to battle wildfires on federal land, including thousands of seasonal workers who start at roughly $13 an hour and rely on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet.
Biden recently called that a “ridiculously low salary.” He plans to announce that no federal firefighter will make less than $15 an hour, the official said.
“As the President said last week, it’s ridiculous that federal firefighters are paid $13 an hour, and we are going to change that,” a senior administration officials said. “Firefighters must be fairly paid for the grueling and risky work that they are willing to take on.”
The White House will also announce they will seek to convert seasonal firefighting jobs to full-time as the demands have increased, and pay retention bonuses. More specific details, such as timing and where the money is coming from, will be announced Wednesday.
As climate change makes regions like the U.S. western states more arid, wildfires have grown more frequent and ferocious.
This year’s wildfire season may serve as an ominous backdrop as Biden and Democrats seek billions of dollars from Congress to blunt climate change, offering real-time examples of the need for more taxpayer investment.
It will also put pressure on the large number of lawmakers from both parties from western states like California, Arizona and New Mexico to shed partisan politics and pay for more firefighters and increased mitigation efforts.
Jonathan Golden, a adviser to the Grassroots Wildlife Firefighters organization, which advocated for seasonal firefighters, predicts this fire season will be a grim call to action.
“Unfortunately, we are facing a tragedy – and it’s not going to be tragedy in remote corners of the country – as more and more innocent people are inadvertently caught in the path of a wildfire and can’t escape,” Golden said. “So, unfortunately, it’s going to be the tragic loss of life that’s going to put this into focus. And that’s really the shame of it all.”
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