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The Politics of Wildland Firefighting

Wildland firefighting is an inherently arduous and dangerous profession with historically low pay for those who work for federal agencies. During the 117th U.S. Congress (2021-2022), legislators introduced bills intended to improve pay, benefits and safety for federal wildland firefighters. These efforts were only partially successful as some bills stalled in the legislative process or were incorporated into other bills.Wildland firefighters employed by federal agencies are primarily responsible for protecting federal lands. However, they also support state and local firefighting efforts on major incidents such as the 2013 Black Forest Fire. Whether working in fire suppression or fire aviation roles, as part of an incident management team, or performing fire mitigation tasks, wildland firefighters can be exposed to a myriad of risks, including thermal and trauma injuries, smoke inhalation, psychological stress; and, more recently, COVID-19.Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center statistics show that 79 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty in the five-year period 2017-2021. Six of the fatalities in 2021 were attributed to COVID.High risk, low payWildland firefighters who work for federal agencies are at the mercy of the federal government and elected officials when it comes to pay and benefits. Federal wildland firefighters typically earn less than their counterparts in state or local agencies, with beginning pay rates often hovering around minimum wage or even less, depending on the established minimum wage for specific locales. This pay disparity is well known to both wildland firefighters and their agencies, and is often cited as a reason for personnel turnover.A U.S. Government Accountability Office report titled ìWildland Fire: Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefightersî released Nov. 17, 2022, stated: ìLow pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters Ö the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work.î The report also noted that in some cases, ìFirefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.îThe U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, acknowledges the history of low pay in its fact sheet ìSupporting the Wildland Firefighting Workforce.î It states, ìFor decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced the challenges of longer, more severe fire years, while their pay has lagged behind their counterparts in the private sector and state and local governments.îCurrent and former federal wildland firefighters comprise the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and educates the public about wildland firefighters employed by the U.S. government. Information posted on the GWF website indicates that in 2021, an entry level federal wildland firefighter could expect to make $13.52 an hour, which was less than the California state minimum wage at that time. By comparison, that same individual could earn $26 an hour working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or $22 an hour with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.A veteran wildland firefighter with more than a decade of federal service requested anonymity to speak openly with The New Falcon Herald. He said that in the 1990s, ìIf you had kids, your wife could be a stay-at-home mom and you could afford a house and pay for your kids on a Forest Service firefighterís salary, but you werenít rich. Now, the difference is the fires are bigger, weíre going through more training, theyíre asking more and more of us every year, and the pay in real terms has gone down dramatically.î He described how firefighters live out of their vehicles during fire season because of high housing costs; he lived in a tent outside of a fire base for an entire summer.ìAll of us as firefighters are incredibly frustrated with the disconnect between the agency leadership and the fire organizations and the firefighters actually on the ground,î he said. ìThereís such a disconnect between what we do, the risks we take, what our jobs actually are, versus what the D.C. bureaucracy understands about our job.î Mitigation work goes on past the end of fire season. ìWe have more fuel targets now, so even after the fire season, theyíre asking us to do more work and be gone from home more.îDonna Nemeth, Regional Press Officer for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said in an Oct. 13 email to The New Falcon Herald, ìIt is difficult to recruit or retain wildland firefighters in every geographic area.îLow pay is not the only issueThe challenges of recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters goes beyond low pay, however. The GAO report cited other reasons such as poor work-life balance, challenges in career advancement and limited workforce diversity. GWF Executive Secretary and retired USFS Fire Staff Officer Riva Duncan testified before the House Natural Resource Committeeís subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands on April 29, 2021: ìThe current federal fire workforce is woefully understaffed and overworked, and people are at their breaking point leaving a wake of mental health issues, suicides, high divorce rates, and very concerning numbers surrounding high incidences of cancer and cardiovascular disease.îGWF attributes the increase in mental health issues to multiple causes such as longer fire years, resulting in longer deployments for firefighters; exposure to larger fires with more intense and dangerous fire behavior; experiencing traumatic events on the fire line; and family stresses created by low pay and more time away from home. Exposure to smoke and particulate matter is cited as contributing to increased rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease.These combined factors led even seasoned wildland firefighters to consider other employment, with turnover affecting agencies across the country. Duncan stated, ìFirefighters are leaving federal service for more lucrative wildland jobs with state agencies, municipal departments, utility providers and even insurance companies. These are people with many years of specialized experience and training who cannot be readily replaced.îDonna Nemeth, Regional Press Officer for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said in an Oct. 13 email to The New Falcon Herald, ìIt is difficult to recruit or retain wildland firefighters in every geographic area.îPay fixes or stopgaps?The GAO report states that federal agencies are taking steps to address issues in the wildland firefighting services. In response to a presidential executive order, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced a $15 minimum wage for U.S. federal civilian employees, including wildland firefighters, on Jan. 21, 2022. However, OPMís press release noted that only ìaround 130 wildland firefightersî benefitted from that specific increase.Additional pay bumps were included in H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL) signed by President Biden on Nov. 15, 2021. According to information posted online June 21, 2022, by the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, Section 40803 of the BIL provided a supplemental salary increase of $20,000 per year, or 50% of base salary (whichever is less), for wildland firefighters employed by those agencies. This increase was retroactive to Oct. 1, 2021, but is only temporary.Although supplemental pay funding is authorized through Sept. 30, 2026, federal agencies estimate that funds will be depleted long before then. ìThe funding from the BIL provision that provided firefighters with a temporary pay increase will be exhausted at the end of fiscal year 2023,î Nemeth said. The interagency wildland firefighting agencies are committed to finding a long-term solution to develop the more permanent, well-supported firefighting workforce needed to address the growing wildfire threat before the salary supplements provided by BIL are exhausted.Federal legislation: mixed resultsIn addition to the BIL, legislators of the 117th U.S. Congress, which convened Jan. 3, 2021, and concludes Jan. 3, 2023, introduced various bills intended to improve pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters. Perhaps the most notable was H.R. 5631, Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (aka Timís Act), introduced Oct. 19, 2021, by Colorado representative Joe Neguse (D). Named in honor of smokejumper Tim Hart, who was fatally injured during a May 2021 parachute jump into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico, the bill encompassed multiple provisions to improve the quality of life for federal wildland lists three original cosponsors for Timís Act (two Democrats and one Republican), with an additional 21 Democratic representatives signing on as cosponsors since the billís introduction. The bill received widespread support from multiple organizations that advocate for firefighters, including Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, the U.S. Hotshots Association, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, the National Smokejumper Association, the San Francisco Firefighterís Cancer Protection Foundation, and the National Federation of Federal Employees.The last action for Timís Act occurred Nov. 3, 2021, when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. The bill did not make it to the Senate floor. The New Falcon Herald reached out to Rep. Neguseís office for comment on the future of the bill and asked whether he would try to introduce a similar bill during the 118th Congress. As of press time, neither Rep. Neguse nor his office have responded.However, some elements of Timís Act were included in other legislation. In addition to pay increases, the BIL included mental health leave and expanded the definition of hazard pay. H.R. 5118, Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, Section 101 (Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Pay Parity) addresses salaries and pay parity with non-federal firefighters, among other items. This bill passed in the House on July 29, 2022, and was received in the Senate on Aug. 2, 2022, with no further actions listed.H.R. 521, the First Responder Fair RETIRE Act, was signed into law on Dec. 9, 2022. This bill allows federal first responders continued participation in their accelerated retirement system if they are injured on the job and subsequently move to another position. Retirement contributions will be refunded to injured members who separate from service. Previously, those benefits and contributions were forfeited.The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2022, includes H.R. 2499, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2022. This bill provides presumptive workers compensation coverage to federal wildland firefighters for specific cancers known to be work-related, as well as sudden cardiac events or strokes within 24 hours of being on the fire line.This article only touches on the many issues facing federal wildland firefighters and their agencies. It remains to be seen how legislators will tackle these challenges in the next congressional session. As GWFís Riva Duncan said in 2021, ìThese issues are larger than any one agency and will take complex, and expensive, solutions. Ö The U.S. is burning, wildland firefighters are struggling, and some are even dying. The time for reform is now.î

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