It’s the midpoint of what has proven to be another agonizing wildfire season for communities across the country affected by the ever-increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires. The Washington Post reported recently that a study found 1 in 6 Americans are now exposed to “significant” wildfire risk. Against the backdrop of an ongoing crisis, the passage of The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act led by Representative Joe Neguse is a reason to hope.
The measure that passed the U.S. House, mostly along party lines (Congressman Doug LaMalfa voted nay), would raise the minimum basic pay for federal wildland firefighters to that of a GS-6 ($17.71/hr) and allow for seven days of mental health leave annually. The legislation moves to the Senate, where advocates are urging members to act without delay.
“Senators must know that wildland firefighters and constituents in their states need them to move this measure to a vote,” said Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “Without raising the starting wage for wildland firefighters, we’ll continue to see an acceleration in attrition. Agencies will not be able to recruit quality people essential to do this complex and dangerous job. At a time when wildfires are increasing in frequency, intensity, and duration, causing greater destruction, we also need mental health support for the first responders tasked with the heavy burden of loss of life and property. Senators must assign this bill to committee and get it to the floor for debate. Your delay will signal to wildland firefighters that equitable pay is inconsequential.”
The most destructive period of California’s wildfire season is now underway, and with about 25 percent fewer firefighters to respond to these emergencies, communities and firefighters brace themselves for the worst. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, that shortage translates to nearly 1,300 unfilled jobs. Meaning increased risk to the remaining first responders and decreased ability to protect life and property.
For decades, federal wildland firefighters have been paid a fraction (think 50 percent or less) of what their state and municipal counterparts earn. They also battle work-related mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, and the rate of death by suicide among firefighters is rising, outpacing line-of-duty deaths.
Many of the reforms outlined in The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act are components of the Tim Hart Pay Parity and Classification Act, considered by many wildland firefighters to be the most robust and comprehensive solution introduced into Congress to date. Advocates of this bill will continue to work with Congressional members like Representative Joe Neguse, who understand the scope and urgency of the issues at hand. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters beseech Congress to act on HR 5118 and Tim’s Act with the urgency with which firefighters defend our communities.