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Infrastructure law gives burned out wildland firefighters a boost

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Kari Greer
/
U.S. Forest Service

This is the second story in a Mountain West News Bureau two-part series on wildland firefighters' mental health. Find the first story here.

Dave Carman is a wildland firefighter in Montana. Last summer, he was living out of his pickup truck. He would park for the evenings at trailheads, public lands or in a local campground.

“The campground host was really understanding,” he says. “He looked after me and made sure I had a place to stay within the campground even if the sites were taken up.”

Carman made the decision to live in his truck because, like many of his colleagues, his pay hasn’t kept up with skyrocketing housing prices in the West. He made $15 an hour last summer. He gets extra overtime and hazard pay when he’s out fighting fires but it’s hard to predict when that happens – and how often.

“It’s not stable,” he says. “You never really know how much money you’ll be making in a given season.”

The whole situation made Carman question whether wildland firefighting could be a viable career for him. But then the infrastructure bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month. It contains potentially big boosts in pay for wildland firefighters as well as expanded mental health services and more opportunities for permanent, year-round work.

The law requires federal agencies to convert at least 1,000 seasonal jobs into permanent ones – meaning year-round health insurance and other benefits. It creates a new “wildland firefighter” occupational classification and it gives personnel a 50% raise, up to $20,000, in base pay.

For Carman, this all brightens his future with the U.S. Forest Service. He could afford rent, maybe even support a family.

“It would turn the firefighting job into a long-term opportunity,” he says.

That’s the goal – to get more seasoned firefighters like Carman to stay on the job for years to come, especially as blazes in the West become more severe and fire season grows longer. During peak season about 15,000 federal firefighters are on duty. But the attrition rate is over 10% annually, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with the majority of those who leave being mid-career employees.

“A lot of them are getting out of fire completely because the demands of the job, being away from home and family, just don’t make it worth the low pay,” says Riva Duncan, a retired fire chief with the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the nonprofit advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

She says the provisions in the infrastructure law should help boost recruitment and retention.

“Some people who are on the fence or are thinking about leaving have decided to stay because they finally feel a sense of hope,” she says. “They feel like things are changing for the better. That’s a really good thing.”

But Duncan also points out that the infrastructure law’s funding is only good for five or six years. There are other caveats, too, such as who gets a pay increase. The law states that federal officials will increase the base salaries for firefighters located “within a specific geographic area in which it is difficult to recruit or retain a federal wildland firefighter.”

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, wants to clear up that language.

“Our preference is to eliminate that caveat entirely,” he says.

That’s why he and a bipartisan group of Western lawmakers are sponsoring the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. It would make some of the infrastructure law's provisions for wildland firefighters permanent. It would raise base pay, across the board, by at least $20,000. It would also allow for housing stipends, retirement benefits for temporary employees, and it would mandate one week of mental health leave for personnel every year.

“We know that the suicide rate for firefighters is 30 times higher than the general public,” Neguse says. “So ensuring that our firefighters have those health benefits and mental health benefits available to them is critically important.”

Patrick Benson, a seasonal wildland firefighter, would love to see some of these benefits enacted. He just finished his first season with the Forest Service and says the job takes a toll.

“It’s exhausting mentally. It’s exhausting physically. Then you compound that on top of the fact that you don’t know how long you’re going to be gone for or what you’re going to encounter when you’re out there,” he says.

Benson welcomes the changes from the infrastructure bill, but it might not be enough to keep him on the job next season, especially as a tight labor market nationwide has employers competing for workers. And the West's real estate market that's forcing some firefighters to live out of their trucks also presents opportunities.

“I kind of want to try carpentry so I’m thinking about taking a carpentry job,” he says.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.