The U.S. Forest Service is aiming to meet its pre-fire hiring targets this summer, although in some regions it is only halfway there.

Overall, the Ministry of Agriculture’s agency has made significant progress in filling long-standing vacancies, reaching 90% of its goal of maintaining a workforce of 11,300 firefighters. Forest Service has seen its non-firefighter staff cut 40 percent in the past 15 years, Randy Moore, head of the agency, said Wednesday before a Senate Committee on Appropriations committee that plays a crucial role in fire mitigation. Forest Service is aiming to increase its workforce to replace half of the 8,000 employees it has lost in recent years.

Although he has made some progress in rebuilding his staff, Moore acknowledged that some regions are only halfway to their staffing targets.

“Fifty percent sounds a little scary when we think about the fires we’re going to face in our different states,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, who chaired the Home Affairs Subcommittee, which held Wednesday’s hearing.

Congress has donated a total of $ 5.5 billion to the Forest Service in a recent infrastructure law, and the agency has set aside $ 1 billion for firefighters’ salaries and expenses. By order of President Biden, federal firefighters now make at least $ 15 an hour. The Infrastructure Act has gone further to ensure a steady increase in firefighters’ pay and to convert more of them from seasonal to full-time jobs. He also created a new position for a firefighter in the wilderness, instead of the more general category of “forest technician” in which they previously served.

However, Moore said his agency is struggling to compete with counties, states and private employers who also hire firefighters. Many offers from the forest service have been rejected, he said.

“There’s a lot of competition in the job market for these skills,” Moore said.

He expressed confidence that his agency would be prepared, but noted that it would continue to hire staff in July, hire contract workers and be able to join the fire brigade, known as “administratively designated” staff. Forest Service is also adding capacity to its grants and contracting teams to build better partnerships that can help with fire prevention and mitigation work.

Senator Lisa Markowski, R-Alaska, the best Republican in the Home Affairs Budget Panel, expressed skepticism about the plan, noting that it is difficult to get hired for any job right now, let alone particularly difficult positions. as firefighters in the wild.

“I hope you are right that we will be able to get the people we need, in time for what we expect, it will be a difficult fire season,” Murkovski said.

Max Alonzo, a former forest service firefighter who now serves as national business representative for the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents many FS employees, said Government executive he was not comforted by the agency, claiming that it was 90% of its staffing target. Every year, he said, firefighters register for work, but never show up after finding better pay options or leaving in a week.

“There’s not enough incentive to keep people around,” Alonzo said. “They do almost nothing and will not be able to see their family [during fire season] and they will not be able to support their families. ”

Although he applauded the Biden administration for raising the minimum wage for federal firefighters, he said $ 15 an hour was “too little, too late.” The Infrastructure Act has allowed the Forest Service to increase pay by up to $ 20,000 a year for positions in areas that are difficult to hire or retain, but the agency has not yet implemented those increases. The delay has further disappointed staff, Alonzo said, and the service has not yet said when it will make the changes.

Moore, the head of the forestry service, acknowledged the steps Congress and administration have taken not far enough and vowed to work with lawmakers to find long-term solutions.

Meanwhile, firefighters continue to fight. A Wyoming-based team of hot people – the federal government’s most elite wildlife firefighters – has a majority of its members who live in their cars outside the district office, Alonzo said. Their team leader had to negotiate with the port-a-pot installation agency in the parking lot.

Jonathan Golden, a former firefighter with the Forest Service and the Land Management Bureau who is now consulting with Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, said even Moore’s rosy outlook at Wednesday’s hearing showed there were still gaps in current staffing levels. While Moore said hiring efforts would continue until July, Golden questioned how successful this would be and what would happen after that date if the goals were not yet met.

“The bold of candidates doesn’t get more stable the more rounds you make,” Golden said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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