Wildfires and higher pay for firefighters is a major focus of infrastructure bill

Key Points
  • The $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate this month includes money to raise wages for federal firefighters and Forest Service staff and would make about 1,000 temporary firefighting jobs permanent.
  • It also includes money for climate-related initiatives, including $73 billion to improve and protect the grid, $3.5 billion allotted to reduce energy costs for low-income households and $12 billion for FEMA flood mitigation grants.
  • But some outsiders say it should be characterized only as a down payment on the huge expenses need to fight climate change.
Climate Consequences: How the infrastructure bill will address climate change
Climate Consequences: How the infrastructure bill will address climate change

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate this month includes billions for reducing carbon emissions and protecting the nation from damage already done by global warming, but critics say it's not even close to enough.

One of the most glaring problems it seeks to rectify is federal firefighter compensation.

Right now, federal firefighters are battling several explosive blazes in California, but they are sorely underpaid, making on average less than $13 an hour. That's less than California's minimum wage and far less than salaries for state firefighters.  

That's expected to change. If the House approves the bill, $600 million will go toward raising those wages. It would also raise salaries for the Forest Service by as much as 50% and make about 1,000 seasonal firefighting jobs permanent.

"Wildland firefighters are truly at the frontlines of dealing with the effects of climate change, they are currently underpaid and poorly equipped, and so it's no surprise that it's hard to recruit firefighters who risked their lives defending communities in very remote areas," said Dan Lashof, U.S. director at the World Resources Institute.

The measure also has $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest thinning and restoration.

Scratching the surface

After the stark reminder last winter in Texas of just how vulnerable the nation's aging electrical grid is to more severe weather, the bill carves out $73 billion to make it not only more sustainable but also to protect it.

There's also $3.5 billion allotted to reduce energy costs for low-income households.

And as flooding becomes more severe due to sea level rise and increasingly intense rainfall, the bill provides $12 billion for FEMA flood mitigation grants in order to increase coastal resilience and improve flood mapping.

President Joe Biden noted in a press conference following the Senate passage of the bill that it makes "critical investments to combat climate change and to build a clean energy future."

But some argue it just scratches the surface, given the extreme dangers to every facet of the economy from the effects of global warming.

"I think the investments in the bipartisan bill could be characterized as a down payment in addressing climate change," said Lashof. "The problem is we can't afford to mortgage our future, so we actually need to make the whole investment now."

Lashof points to the next step — the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. It is expected to include larger investments in energy efficiency upgrades, electric vehicle infrastructure and incentives for consumers to go even greener.

"We need the full package to be responding to the effects of climate change at the pace and scale that it's really demanding," Lashof said.