Monday, November 29, 2021

Federal firefighters deserve better pay

by Daily Inter Lake
| July 4, 2021 12:00 AM

Montana’s summer wildfire season came early this year — an entire season early.

Wildland fire personnel were dispatched to the roaring Robertson Draw blaze near Red Lodge in early June — typically Montana’s wettest month. To date the fire has charred some 30,000 acres on the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Meanwhile, the Crooked Creek Fire in nearby Pryor has burned over 4,000 acres.

We’ve been lucky west of the Divide thus far. But with the recent record-smashing heat wave and drought conditions worsening, it’s only a matter of time before that luck runs out.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 91% of the state faces abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions, and Montana’s fire managers are on high alert with forest officials predicting an above-average fire season.

Now is not the time to skimp on resources. That was the resounding message at a meeting of western state governors at the White House last week to discuss the worsening wildfire conditions.

President Biden’s announcement of plans to hire more federal firefighters and immediately raise their pay is a welcome outcome of those talks. Biden’s plan would ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour — currently pay for federal firefighters starts at $13 an hour.

“That’s going to end in my administration,” Biden said. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”

The proposed wage bump through bonuses is a significant and worthy change given the insufferable, exhausting and often dangerous work. What’s more, Biden told the governors that he’ll work with Congress to pass a more permanent wage increase going forward.

The White House plan would also add or convert to full-time nearly 1,000 firefighters across a host of agencies. Ramping up the number of year-round workers only makes sense with fire season beginning earlier and lasting longer. These full-time crews can also take on vital forest management tasks that help reduce the intensity of wildfires.

While the outcome of the White House meeting was encouraging, it’s inexcusable that Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and Gov. Brad Little of Idaho, both Republicans, were snubbed from having a seat at the table.

“It is critical to engage governors fully and directly to have a productive discussion about how the federal government can improve its wildfire response and prevention efforts,” Gianforte and Little penned in a letter to Biden expressing their disappointment in not being a part of these important discussions.

The White House contends the invited governors — six Democrats and two Republicans — represented a “cross-section” of states impacted by wildfires. But a true cross-section includes the vast tracts of federal forest in the Northern Rockies region that continues to suffer from catastrophic wildfires year after year.

We can’t allow politics to infiltrate our nation’s wildfire response efforts. The Biden administration should welcome an open discussion that includes all viewpoints on the effects of climate change, and the importance of forest management and wildfire preparedness.

Red states and blue states are equally affected, so let’s work together for the best possible outcome.