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U.S. senators urge long-term wildland firefighter pay increase

Inflation and tough housing market help justify higher paychecks
A firefighter with Durango Fire Protection District works to keep a fire in the 14000 block of Florida Road (County Road 240) from spreading in May 2021. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet led a group of bipartisan Western senators last week in writing a letter to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs urging long-term solutions to the recruitment and retention of federal firefighters.

The letter addressed a temporary pay increase for federal firefighters in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will expire on Sept. 30.

Under President Joe Biden’s 2021 initiatives, $24.3 million was used to increase the base salary for federal firefighters “up to the lesser of $20,000” to or by 50% of their base salary. This was done by increasing the minimum wage from $13 to $15. More than 11,300 federal firefighters working in the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior received increased pay in 2021.

According to Charles Lanoue, the Southwest District chief of the Wildland Fire Management Section of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, there is a need for a long-term pay increase given inflation and the housing market.

“With the current pay, it can be difficult,” Lanoue said about the cost of living. “I think it would help you maintain the recruitment-retention avenues, and maybe have firefighters not looking to get 1,000 hours of overtime annually to survive.”

While the initial 2021 pay increase did not apply to his division, Lanoue believes the push toward securing a more permanent paycheck for federal wildland firefighters is positive in the long run.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are 480 federal firefighters in Colorado, including all fire personnel affected by firefighter pay, of which 240 are initial-response firefighters.

There is a pay gap between federal and state or private wildfire firefighters. Statistics from the nonprofit organization Grassroots Wildland Firefighters show entry-level federal firefighters may earn up to 60% of their Colorado counterparts while lacking access to medical coverage for cancer and heart diseases.

“As the 2023 fire season begins, Congress must support our nation’s federal wildland firefighters and ensure the federal government has a robust and resilient workforce,” the letter reads.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet talks with and local fire and forestry agencies in September 2021 at the Lions Den in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As wildfires become more common and more destructive across the West, the need for firefighters has only increased in recent years. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 7.5 million acres burned in 2022. The total damage in acres burned by wildfires has doubled in the last two decades.

The federal government has spent an average of $2.5 billion per fiscal year between 2016 and 2020 according to the Congressional Budget Office. In the letter, the congressmen cite the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's estimation that the cost of wildfires in the past five years has reached about $67 billion.

The letter follows the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Pay Parity and Classification Act Bennet introduced in May. The legislation aims to overhaul federal wildland firefighter pay by permanently increasing wages and improving benefits and support.

“Ideally, (we want) something where … folks can balance their work-rest ratio,” Lanoue said. “That their home life can be attended to during the fire season and that fire managers such as myself can afford for guys to take time off to take vacations and have a candidate selection pool to choose from.”

Mina Allen is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mallen@durangoherald.com.

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