California 'Hotshot' Firefighters Quit Over $13.45 an Hour Pay Amid Wildfire Season

Firefighters in California are quitting their jobs because of incredibly low wages and a lack of benefits as three major fires rage in California's Inland Empire, Central Valley, and the California-Oregon border.

Elite teams of wildland firefighters known as "hotshot" teams are growing sparse, and KNTV reported the starting pay for a hotshot team member is $13.45 an hour.

Employed by the federal government, hotshot firefighters are best equipped to tackle large wildland fires on rough terrain, but firefighters are finding they can make more money on unemployment than they do while employed.

It's not an easy job either, as former hotshot firefighter Aaron Humphrey told KRCW that "these federal firefighters are sleeping in the dirt."

"We're not going to hotels for the most part. There's barely time to take showers if you get to take a shower and camp," he said. "Oftentimes the camps are in places that it's very smoky, very dirty and loud, so you don't sleep much. So the actual living conditions, coupled with the wages, it's pretty terrible."

Federal firefighters and state firefighters, members of Cal Fire, have an unexplainable pay disparity as well. The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters website demonstrated that federal-level firefighters are making about half as much as their Cal Fire counterparts.

"You can go get a job at some of those fast-food restaurants, and get paid better base wages than you do here," Humphrey added.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters also said 20 percent of the Forest Service's permanent firefighter positions are currently vacant.

Humphrey said he couldn't put in the effort he knew the job required when he was worrying so much about money. "My family was suffering financially with me being gone 140 days a year," he said. "I was dealing with a lot of just anger and depression and a lot of things that I needed to figure out about. I didn't recognize myself."

The thrill of the job itself is enough to keep some firefighters in the position, but some fear if there isn't reform soon, there will be less and less firefighters.

"I love it. It was the best job in the world," Humphrey said. "But I had to do what was right by my family and myself."

According to KNTV, the Forest Service has said it is working with U.S. Department of Agriculture leaders and elected officials on pay and benefit plans, and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters have drawn up a bill that would immediately give all firefighters a 50-percent pay raise and set the starting wage for hotshots at $20 an hour.

A spokesman for the Forest Service told KNTV that California has a goal of 44 hotshot crews, but only 31 are fully staffed at this point in time.

The Forest Service also responded to Newsweek's inquiry by forwarding a statement from the White House that was released on Wednesday. The statement discussed that the Biden-Harris administration will be "fulfilling the President's commitment that firefighters will not make less than $15 an hour this year."

"These are short-term solutions to support our Federal wildland firefighters, especially due to the multiple impacts of COVID and climate change this year. The Administration will work with Congress on longer-term much needed compensation, benefit, and work-life balance reforms for Federal wildland firefighters," the statement claimed.

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Hotshot firefighters in California are quitting due to immensely low wages and lack of benefits. A crew of inmate firefighters work to contain the Springs Fire as it burns along a hillside in the Angeles National Forest in Valyermo, California, April 5. KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images