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As wildfire smoke chokes East Coast, Senate tackles federal firefighting challenges

Wages for the firefighters tasked with extinguishing forest fires are lagging behind state and municipal services, a panel of experts told lawmakers.

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the nation's capital braved a second day of hazardous air contamination thanks to wildfires blazing in Canada, federal officials told members of the Senate that the government is underpaying and overworking wildland firefighter forces.

Even if it weren’t for the suffocating haze that enveloped Capitol Hill Thursday morning, a congressional hearing on U.S. wildfire response would have been timely. A March report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ independent watchdog organization, found that smoke from forest fires makes up for nearly 30% of airborne particulates emitted in the country.

The drastic increase in wildfires, especially on the West Coast, has been the result of climate change and forest mismanagement, said West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who chairs the upper chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“We’ve essentially created a perfect storm and as a result have witnessed an increase in the occurrence of mega-fires, with communities across the West suffering from the tragic loss of life and property,” Manchin said. “While agency leaders have talked about correcting this course for some time, it unfortunately seems that with each passing year we continue to slip further behind.”

The federal government’s main bulwark against mounting forest fires has been its workforce of wildland firefighters, wildfire-suppression specialists largely overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. As a panel of witnesses explained to lawmakers Thursday, however, it has been more difficult than ever to keep wildland firefighters on the job — or to get new recruits on board.

Payment is one of the largest barriers to wildland firefighter recruitment and retention, explained Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy chief of state, private and Tribal forestry at the Forest Service.

“The only way that we’re going to attract people to this challenging and hazardous work is to pay them fairly,” Hall-Rivera said. “Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities.”

According to a listing on the government job board USAJobs, the projected salary for a wildland firefighter working in Arizona on a six-month contract ranges from $34,000 to $44,000. The November 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorized an extra $20,000 bonus through September, but job seekers would have to run the numbers against those put up by Oregon-based logging company Miller Timber Services, which advertises wildland firefighting positions that pay up to $4,565 bi-weekly, or more than $50,000 for the same six-month period.

A firefighter directs water on a grass fire on an acreage behind a residential property in Kamloops, British Columbia, on June 5, 2023. No structures were damaged but firefighters had to deal with extremely windy conditions while putting out the blaze. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cardell Johnson, director of GAO’s natural resources and environment division, shared with lawmakers the results of a survey of wildland firefighters conducted by the agency in November, which concluded that low pay was a top issue for keeping up the workforce.

“Low pay impacts recruitment and retention because other industries, such as food service, offer equal or better pay for less dangerous work,” Johnson said. The salary of a federal wildland firefighter does not reflect the physical and mental demands of the job — and the bonuses authorized by the 2021 infrastructure law are slated to run out this year.

Another issue facing wildland firefighters is that they are often tasked with living in remote or expensive areas, the GAO official said, citing reports that some firefighters are forced to live out of their cars because they can’t afford housing at their duty stations. Working in more far-flung areas of the country also means limited access to basic services such as grocery stores or the internet, which could affect firefighter morale, Johnson added.

Further, wildland firefighters suffer from a lack of work-life balance. “This is another barrier cited by nearly all of the stakeholders we’ve met with,” Johnson told lawmakers. “Poor work-life balance impacts retention because it drives firefighter to take a break from service or leave the workforce entirely — and if that happens, agencies lose valuable firefighting knowledge and experience.”

The witnesses urged Congress to increase pay for wildland firefighters as a first step to improving retention. The Forest Service has requested a permanent pay increase for its firefighting staff in its 2024 budget request, Hall-Rivera said. The roughly $180 million line item would be used to revamp the agency’s pay table — but such a change would require separate legislation from Congress.

Johnson concurred. “These barriers are complex and interrelated,” he said, “and they require long-term solutions that may need support from Congress, addressing temporary pay actions before they expire.”

The Forest Service’s budget request also includes around $10 million to improve mental and physical health services for firefighters, and an extra $50 million for housing.

“We’re working to make a difference and improve the lives of Forest Service firefighters,” Hall-Rivera said. “Together we can make a difference in the quality of life for our firefighters that protect our own quality of life.”

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Categories / Environment, Government, Weather

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