The Department of the Interior is moving to create a new year-round federal firefighter workforce.
The Department of the Interior is creating a year-round federal firefighter workforce, agency officials told Senate appropriators on Wednesday.
Currently, seasonal hires represent the majority of the federal wildfire firefighting workforce. Many positions have to be re-filled annually.
Congress gave the department $29 million for a workforce transformation project in FY 2021. That includes creating a permanent cadre of federal firefighters, which DOI is still assembling, said Rachael Taylor, the department's principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. Taylor testified alongside Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at a hearing of the subcommittee that funds the agency.
As of June 10, the department has either hired or is in the process of hiring around 57 positions for this permanent workforce. Fully implemented, about 570 positions will move to full-time, she said.
California lawmakers have been pushing the DOI and the U.S. Forest Service at the Department of Agriculture to create a larger full time federal firefighter workforces by converting more seasonal positions to be permanent. Over 20 representatives wrote to Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the subject in March 2021.
A larger permanent cadres would "add immediate capacity to fight wildfires and conduct prevention work nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions when needed, support increased staff capacity to perform actions outside of the fire season that reduce fire risk, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process," they wrote.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also pressed Haaland pay parity between federal firefighters and state and local firefighters. The Government Accountability Office is currently reviewing hiring and retention issues for federal firefighters. Feinstein also introduced another bill in January that would waive annual premium pay caps for federal firefighters.
Taylor said that the department is having "regular meetings at the White House" to discuss readiness, and that "the issues … about pay parity are absolutely part of the discussion."
Senators also reintroduced a bill in March to enable federal firefighters to trade shifts without it affecting their pay or annual leave, which many firefighters employed by state and local governments can already do.