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Increasing federal firefighter pay is money well spent

| August 22, 2021 12:00 AM

It likely came as a shock to many of us that new federal firefighters typically earn just under $13 an hour — less than the starting pay at many fast-food joints these days amid a nationwide hiring crunch.

President Biden called the pay level “unacceptable” during a virtual meeting with Western governors and Cabinet officials earlier this summer.

“We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters,” Biden stressed.

He’s absolutely right, and we didn’t need a raging wildfire season in many states this summer — Montana included — to realize we need to invest more in our federal firefighting force. Montana has a lot of federal land to protect. In Flathead County, roughly 72%, or 2.44 million acres of the 3.36 million acres of land, is federally owned.

It was welcome news this week when the Biden administration made good on a pledge to ensure that no federal firefighter earns less than $15 an hour. The change comes after years of demanding better pay. This initiative will boost pay for more than 14,800 firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department.

Federal firefighters should see bigger paychecks starting sometime in the coming week, and will get retroactive raises back to June 30.

Randy Erwin, the national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, wrote to the White House last week, calling the pay increase “a unique opportunity to invest in our people, increase union jobs, save taxpayer dollars and professionalize our firefighting workforce who risk their lives for the American people and our communities every day.”

The pay initiative, a temporary fix, also will give all seasonal firefighters on the front lines a $1,300 bonus and most permanent frontline firefighters will get a bonus of 10% of six months of their base pay.

The administration has promised to work with Congress on “longer-term much needed compensation, benefit and work-life balance reforms” for federal wildland firefighters, according to a White House fact sheet. A longer-term solution is included in the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package that won Senate approval. If the House OKs the measure, it will set aside $600 million to increase federal firefighters’ wages.

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, but better pay for firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect our public lands should be something all of our lawmakers can embrace.