Democrats push for boost in wildland firefighter pay, increased mental health benefits

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Democrats – and select Republicans – voiced their support for a bipartisan bill that would boost wildland firefighter pay and reclassify their job titles as firefighters during a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

Democrats push for boost in wildland firefighter pay, increased mental health benefits
© The Hill Democrats push for boost in wildland firefighter pay, increased mental health benefits

“Wildfires today are really a year-round risk burning larger areas at higher intensity, and this is only projected to increase as the climate continues to warm,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “While Congress has acted to increase the budget for wildfire suppression, we have neglected to prioritize the well-being of those on the frontlines of these climate driven disasters – our brave, federal wildland firefighters.”

Wednesday’s hearing was primarily considering the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act – co-sponsored by Reps. Neguse, Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) – which would raise pay and address the classification of wildland firefighters. The subcommittee was also considering a second bill, Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, which would waive limitations on overtime and premium pay.

The first bill – also known as “Tim’s Act” – is named for Tim Hart, a smokejumper from Wyoming who lost his life in May while battling the Eicks Fire in New Mexico.

The act, introduced last week, would raise pay to at least $20 per hour, improve healthcare and mental health services, provide a week of mental health leave, ensure retirement benefits for seasonal temporary work and provide both housing stipends and tuition assistance. The legislation would also establish a federal wildland firefighter classification category, so that firefighters are distinguished from other forest technicians for their dangerous duties.

Cheney, who joined the hearing briefly from the road, stressed the importance of bringing wildland firefighters “the kind of commitment they need through adequate pay and salary,” while ensuring “that we recognize the real danger that they face and the sacrifices that they make to keep us safe.”

“These reforms have come about with years of oppressive entry level wages below minimum wage in some states,” said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which helped shape the bill. “Something must give. These harmful physical and mental burdens can no longer be borne by our first responder federal wildland firefighters.”

Lofgren’s bill, introduced in June, focuses on “lifting the cap” on overtime pay accrued by these firefighters, which she said could help topple “a significant hurdle in attracting and retaining our most experienced firefighters.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), ranking member of the subcommittee, agreed with his Democratic counterparts that “federal wildland firefighters have been stretched incredibly thin” and that the mental and physical tolls “hamper retention and recruitment.” Fulcher said.

“The bills before us today are serious proposals that would address necessary compensation and support services,” he said.

Nonetheless, Fulcher criticized the subcommittee’s leadership for failing to hold hearings on the management of public lands and forests – noting that it would be impossible to “truly address wildland firefighter wellbeing” without aggressively scaling up the “management warranted to rein in this historic wildfire crisis.

The House had referred both bills to the Committees on Oversight and Reform, Natural Resources and Agriculture, while the Natural Resources Committees then referred the bills to the subcommittee conducting the Wednesday hearing.

“It is undeniable that the primary driver of our wildland firefighter workforce challenge is the enormous buildup of hazardous fuels on too many of our federal lands, which has led to worsening catastrophic wildfire seasons,” Fulcher said.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, likewise expressed his support for “paying our firefighters more,” but stressed that “we should also manage our forest so that we don’t have to lose another brave hero like Tim.”

“We need to actively manage our forest – a reality that Democrats on this committee have gone to unbelievable lengths to deny,” Westerman said.

In response to these arguments, Neguse said that the Natural Resources Committee held a hearing earlier this year on his Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership Act, which would help increase funding available to the Agriculture and Interior Departments to conduct broader treatments in fire prone regions. Neguse also said that President Biden’s proposed bipartisan infrastructure bill includes a $50 billion investment in the country’s forests.

Under the current system – which lacks any wildland firefighter classification – when officials discuss federal wildland firefighters, they generally are referring to fire response personnel, those in fire leadership positions, fire equipment operators, those who do logistic support and those who conduct vehicle and aviation operations, according to Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy chief of State and Private Forestry at the U.S. Forest Service.

Within that workforce, she explained, about 60 percent are permanent employees and 40 percent are temporary – numbers that the Forest Service is hoping to change to 80-20.

“The toll of longer fire seasons, more extreme fire behavior, devastating fire impacts and pay and benefits that are not competitive is becoming unsustainable for our forest service firefighters,” Hall-Rivera said.

Employees of CalFire, she continued, can make up to twice the amount of what federal wildland fighters receive.

Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire in the Department of the Interior, expressed similar concerns, noting that his department’s “firefighters are stretched to the limit.”

“Many suffer from physical and mental fatigue with no time to rest and recuperate between deployments,” Rupert said. “Simply put, the pay benefits and wellness programs that are currently in place do not adequately support firefighter needs or reflect the realities of today’s conditions.”

Rupert attributed these conditions to climate change, which he described as “a proven driver behind many of the larger, more intense wildfires” that are devastating communities – adding that as fire seasons become longer, firefighters have been asked to start working earlier and end working later.

“The status quo is no longer a viable management option,” Rupert said.

Due to the intensity and duration of today’s year-round fire season, Hall-Rivera said that conducting hazardous fuel treatment and prescribed burns has become increasingly difficult, as employees who would have been assigned this work are now out on fires. To bridge this gap, she explained, the Forest Service needs more permanent firefighters, and particularly those trained in 21st century firefighting technologies.

“We absolutely need to grow our firefighting crews so that people can take time off so that they can have a work-life balance,” Hall-Rivera said.

Lucas Mayfield, vice president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, was one Forest Service firefighter who struggled with that work-life balance. After 18 years of serving in “the most gratifying job” he’s ever had, Mayfield said he retired due to “seasonal depression, anxiety and the thought that my family would be better off with a life insurance check.”

“Halfway toward retirement eligibility, I left regular government service due to the toll that it was taking on me mentally,” Mayfield said. “This is the legislation that would have kept me employed by the United States Forest Service, and will stop the exodus that is currently occurring while adding to the needed capacity.”

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