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Politics

Everyone Agrees Wildland Firefighters Deserve a Raise. Why Can’t Congress Make It Happen?

Meanwhile, fire season has begun.

A firefighter and money.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There is basically no original way left to complain about Congress. Bemoaning our elected officials is the most American of pastimes; pretty much as long as we’ve been a country, we’ve been cringing at the people who run it.

Lately, though, things have felt bleakly unfunny. Gerrymandering and tribalism have cleaved Congress into warring halves, making bipartisanship politically suicidal. The three-week House Speaker vacancy last fall exposed the legislative branch as the most dysfunctional it’s been in its quarter-millennium of existence. Lawmakers accomplished less in 2023 than any other time in the past 50 years, and experts predict 2024 will be even worse.

It’s a bad time to be someone who needs a bill passed, in other words. Like, say, a federal wildland firefighter.

Back in 2022, in the flush times after the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, President Biden allotted $600 million toward increasing the pay of federal firefighters, who made as little as $13 an hour at the time. The BIL boost was not insignificant: it bumped the starting wage to $15 an hour, and current firefighters received an annual pay increase of up to $20,000 that was retroactive to the year before.

The raise had always been intended to be temporary, serving as a “bridge for two years as the administration works with Congress on longer-term reforms,” the Biden administration explained at the time. That ran out last September — just in time for the government to implode spectacularly.

Congress had actually been working on a permanent fix last summer, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act. A rare bipartisan piece of legislation, it was introduced by Arizona’s Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema and would mean a lasting increase to the base pay for Forest Service and Department of the Interior wildland firefighters, plus add new premium pay for those who respond to high-hazard fire incidents.

The bill cruised through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on a 10-1 vote, with only Republican Rand Paul concern-trolling about the deficit. But it never even made it to committee in a Republican-controlled House obsessed with spending cuts. “There was a window where it could have been brought up for a vote that they pretty much missed,” Riva Duncan, a wildland firefighter of more than 30 years who serves as the executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an industry advocacy group, told me.

Since the temporary pay bump expired in September, Congress has extended firefighters’ salaries three times using continuing resolutions, which means that every few months, there are headlines about how the force is on the brink of losing half their pay. The current supplement — and funding for the government more broadly — is set to expire March 8, and Congress will probably bridge it with a fourth extension as the bill continues to flounder and the larger budget fights continue.

Meanwhile, the 2024 fire season is already starting to heat up. Several states were under red flag warnings on Monday and Tuesday, with smoke from wildfires in the Great Plains and south drifting as far as New York City. And it’s February. Things will only get worse as the spring dries into the summer.

For the 17,000 or so firefighters affected, the uncertainty means their lives hang in a sort of limbo. Retirement accounts are suspended until Congress can work out a solution. Additionally, “a lot of people who have tried to get a loan, whether it’s for a vehicle or to buy a house or to move and pay rent — they can’t count on the supplement,” Duncan said. “So that really affects them, not having a plannable income.”

Needless to say, “morale is pretty low right now,” Duncan went on. It’s not an appealing time to be a federal firefighter, particularly when many state and private firefighting agencies can offer you actual financial stability (not to mention wages that are often higher). According to an assessment by the National Federation of Federal Employees, as much as half of the 11,000-strong Forest Service firefighters corps could start to look for other work if a permanent fix doesn’t happen soon. And if that comes to be, then “communities will burn, and people will die,” NFFE National President Randy Erwin warned in a statement last summer.

That’s because federal firefighters do things that other crews, simply, can’t. “The federal government … provides advanced-skill units not offered by state or private entities, such as hotshot crews, smokejumpers, rappellers, helitack crews, and wildland fire modules” — that is, specialist teams that are critical for fighting fires in this new era of extreme weather — Colorado’s Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse, the co-chair of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, wrote in a letter last fall.

Retirements and defections from skill-based work like firefighting are especially damaging because with every senior departure goes the kind of on-the-job expertise that green new hires can’t replace. But that’s if there are new hires in the first place. Rumors abound that the agencies are struggling to fill their openings even this late in the training cycle, with a known vacancy rate of 20% in the Forest Service force alone.

To help its remaining workers make ends meet, the Forest Service has been paying firefighter wages out of its fire suppression fund, which is usually used on actual fires. In the DOI, the stopgap money comes from its preparedness fund, which is intended for day-to-day expenses. That has been working in the short term. But “if we have a big fire season, which in an El Niño year, usually we do — we know that there’s a lot less snow in the Rockies and the Sierra this year — then that pot of money for suppression, it’s not bottomless. It is a finite pot of money,” Duncan said. Agencies and lawmakers think, “‘Well, they’re making it work, so they don’t really need a permanent pay raise,’” she added. “But this is not a tenable situation.”

Each year, an average of 17 wildland firefighters die in the line of duty. Climate change doubled the number of large fires in the West between 1984 and 2015. And last year saw the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history in a place that wasn’t supposed to burn.

Firefighter pay, by all appearances, should be the rare issue on the Hill that lawmakers more or less agree on. No one wants to see communities burned to the ground, cities filled with smoke, or the people who risk their lives to contain such dramatic natural disasters go underpaid. The bill is about as close to a no-brainer as you can get in these divisive times, and Duncan feels sure that if it went to a vote, it would pass. But Congress remains distracted and obstinate. As long as the permanent bill is stalled and continuing resolutions are used as short-term fixes, federal firefighters will continue to feel undervalued or, worse, forgotten.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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