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Affording the Fight

California firefighter shares impacts of temporary pay increase

Donyelle K. Davis
Washington Office
September 15, 2023

Nicholas Brasher
“Although I know I will never be a rich man doing this job, I show up to work every day because I truly love what I do.” (USDA photo by
Frank Monterrosa.)

This is the eleventh story in a series called Affording the Fight.

Wildland firefighter Nicholas Brasher’s reasons for getting up every day ready to face the most challenging circumstances are simple. He loves what he does and cares about the people impacted by the thousands of wildland fires in California every year.

Brasher has been a firefighter with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for a little over 8 years, working on the San Bernardino National Forest. Though the work has always been fulfilling, the pay has not. Since last year, federal firefighters have received a temporary wildland firefighter pay supplement. This additional pay proved transformational for thousands of wildland firefighters like Brasher.

Wildland firefighter Nickolas Brasher in the forest holding a small animal.
Nicholas Brasher has been a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service for eight years, fighting fires in California and across the country. (USDA Forest Service photo by Aaron Pittman)

For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced longer, more severe fire years, while their pay has lagged their counterparts in the private sector, and state and local governments.

“I believe we all have a shared perspective in that we could make more money, have better benefits, enjoy more time at home with family and friends, and not have to miss out on some of life's most special and important moments if we would simply transfer to another agency or department,” said Brasher. “But my heart has always aligned with the mission and goals of the Forest Service, as it does with my fellow employees who stick around through all of the hardships we endure throughout the days, weeks, months and years of service that we choose to devote to this career.”

Brasher said he knows how truly unique his job is as a senior firefighter with the Big Bear Hotshots. He points out that it provides many opportunities that some people may never have such as being able to help others combined with the excitement of the job itself.

A group of 9 firefighters in the forest.
 Nicholas Brasher with his former team, the Del Rosa Hotshot crew. Brasher hopes that benefits beyond pay will be considered for Forest Service firefighter crews. (USDA Forest Service photo by Jonathan Rudman)

However, as much as he cherishes those things, there’s no denying that times can get hard for him and his team to support themselves let alone a family.

“I, myself, struggle with having to work hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of overtime every fire season to make ends meet just to watch my savings from the season dwindle throughout the winter season when things get slow,” he said.“ I know that some may say to ‘manage your money properly,’ but no one can predict when life will happen and throw you a curveball.”

With the federal wildland firefighter pay supplement, which delivered temporary pay increases to almost 15,000 men and women who protect the nation’s communities, forests and grasslands from wildfire risks, Brasher can get through the winter months without struggling. Before the supplement, many of his counterparts worked second jobs on their days off to provide for their families.

“It absolutely brings a somewhat sense of calm to myself as well as my fellow employees when speaking with them about what the increased pay has provided for us,” he said. “Without the extra pay in the wintertime, us folks who live in Southern California have a hard time making enough money to simply pay our mortgages, rent, bills, insurance, buy food, while still devoting a percentage of our check into retirement savings so we have something waiting for us after more than 20 years of service.”

Firefighter Nicholas Brasher cutting a tree in the forest.
Wildland firefighter Nicholas Brasher found purpose in helping the thousands of people impacted by wildland fires. He hopes the dedication will pay off with permanent pay and improved benefits. (USDA Forest Service photo by Jonathan Rudman)

The extra income has given Brasher a reason not to leave the agency.

Several members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives have introduced firefighter pay legislation. This summer, a bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House and Senate introduced the “Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act of 2023,” a bill that would permanently increase base pay for Forest Service and Department of the Interior wildland firefighters. The bill would provide an increase to wildland firefighters’ basic pay as well as issue premium payments for responding to incidents.

Beyond the Pay

Though pay is a big challenge for firefighters like Brasher, he hopes the spotlight on pay will lead to improvements in other areas such as work-life balance, healthcare benefits, pension and retirement.

“These issues also have to be addressed if we're truly trying to provide a better livelihood for our employees and their families,” he said, adding that veteran firefighters have noticed how difficult firefighting has become over time as climate changes impact their ability to suppress fires. “The world is changing. Fire environments are vastly different today. Everything is different—the amount of fuels, weather, length of fire seasons and the intensity, which all impact the duration of labor required to manage and suppress the fire activity that has become the norm for the past decade.”

A group of firefighters and the American flag.
Caption: Nicholas Brasher spent years with the Del Rosa Hotshot crew. Hotshots are elite firefighters trained to fight wildland fires and respond to other emergencies nationwide. (USDA Forest Service photo by Nicholas Brasher)

Yet, despite the hardships he and his peers endure, Brasher remains optimistic that better is on the horizon.

“I truly believe that great things are coming for this agency, and I'd like to stick around to see and be a part of the positive impact that all of this provides for current and future wildland firefighters alike,” he said.

More to learn

We invite you to read more firefighters’ stories to better understand their struggles and learn how the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law pay supplement has helped them and their families continue to serve the public until a permanent pay solution is enacted by Congress. Their stories represent the thousands of outstanding men and women that serve in a variety of emergency responder capacities across the Forest Service.

Editor’s note for Forest Service employees and families:

If you or someone you know are in distress or having thoughts of suicide, call 9-8-8, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

If you currently need care or mental health support, please use the available resources through the USDA Forest Service Employee Assistance Program.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group Preparedness Guide (PDF, 1.34 MB) for firefighters and their families and the companion Firefighter and Family Members’ Reintegration Guide (PDF, 1.71 MB) are also good resources to support the health and well-being of the wildland fire community.

For more information on other resources available to you and your family members, please visit: Wildland Firefighter & Responder Resources.