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Montana senators support act to boost federal firefighter wages

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | September 21, 2023 12:00 AM

With the deadline to pass a federal budget rapidly approaching, members of Montana’s congressional delegation are working to permanently increase pay for wildland firefighters.

Cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act would solidify the temporary pay raises federal firefighters received through a $600 million provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The provision altered the current pay scale for federal firefighters, increasing their hourly base pay. According to Forest Service information, entry-level federal wildland firefighters previously had a beginning base pay of about $12 to $13 per hour.

“Due to the dangers that wildfires pose to our forests and communities, a lack of action to ensure the fair treatment of our federal wildland firefighting workforce would jeopardize national security,” a bipartisan group of senators wrote in a letter. “Therefore, we request that you take all possible actions to ensure this critical legislation passes into law before the end of the fiscal year.”

The most commonly cited barrier to wildland firefighter recruitment and retention is low pay, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Ensuring paycheck protection is important for firefighters nationwide, said Luke Mayfield, a co-founder and president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

“It is the immediate need and it is the most important thing at the table right now,” Mayfield said. “It's the anchorpoint.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was able to meet 99% of its 2023 hiring goals, attributing that success to the payment reforms previously awarded, according to Dan Hottle, the spokesperson for the northern region of the Forest Service.

“With climate change fueling more severe wildfires and extending fire seasons into fire years, hiring and retaining the federal wildland firefighters needed to combat this growing challenge is more important than ever. For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced these challenges while their pay has lagged their state, local and private counterparts in some areas of the U.S.,” Hottle said in an email.

With the end of the fiscal year approaching, it's essential that the increases are made permanent, Tester said, otherwise firefighters will lose 50% of their salaries. The money would be a direct appropriation from the general fund, he said.

“In order to be able to recruit and maintain [firefighters], I believe we have to make this permanent,” Tester said on Tuesday.

Supporters of the legislation hope to see it included in the budget for the next fiscal year, but possibilities of a government shutdown linger as Republicans and Democrats fail to pass any appropriation bills.

If the government does shut down, federal firefighters, alongside many other federal positions, will effectively make no money. If a continuing resolution passes, the sponsor’s on the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act will attempt to include it in the resolution as well.

Daines was part of the original effort in July to temporarily raise the wages, as well.

“As fire season devastates Montana communities year after year, Montana wildland firefighters put everything on the line to protect Montana families and towns. I was glad to work with my colleagues across the aisle to secure a well-deserved pay raise for these Montana heroes and now it’s time we make this compensation permanent,” said Daines in a press release.

The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act is also sponsored by Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, Alex Padilla, D-California, Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming and Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.