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With wildland firefighter pay cut nearing, a dozen Western senators urge action

 Firefighters gather for their morning meeting, or “briefing”, during a prescribed fire operation on the Payette National Forest last October.
Firefighters gather for their morning meeting, or “briefing”, during a prescribed fire operation on the Payette National Forest last October.

In less than four months, temporary pay raises for federal wildland firefighters will expire, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is urging action to make them permanent.

In a recent letter, 12 senators from Western states – 11 Democrats and one Republican – asked leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs for “swift consideration of legislation that authorizes a long-term solution to increase wildland firefighter recruitment and retention.”

“Investing in our federal wildland firefighters is a matter of national security as critical

infrastructure, homes, communities, structures, and natural resources are at grave and growing risk of catastrophic wildfire,” the senators wrote. “These investments are critical for increased capacity, housing, mental health and well-being.”

Jonathon Golden, a former wildland firefighter who now works on legislative issues with the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, applauded the lawmakers' commitment to supporting firefighters as the demands of the profession mount.

“I think that it's encouraging to see a letter out there that sets the stage for there to be the process that needs to happen,” he said. “To hear bills, to get them into committees and to debate the merits of them and really kind of let the chips fall where they may at that point.”

Without action, the temporary raises – funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – vanish September 30.

“And if these go away, I'm really worried that we're going to lose people fighting our fires all throughout the western United States,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, told the Mountain West News Bureau. “So we have to find a solution.”

Bennet, one of the letter’s signatories, recently reintroduced a version of Tim’s Act, which would make those raises permanent. Named after smokejumper Tim Hart, who died from injuries sustained during a 2021 New Mexico wildfire, the bill would also address other long-standing challenges faced by wildland firefighters, like housing costs and mental health.

He acknowledged that there might not be an appetite to pass the full bill, but said there are other ways to extend the raises to avoid what some have called a firefighter fiscal cliff.

“I'm open-minded about that. What I'm not open-minded about is the need to extend this pay so we don't lose firefighters,” Bennet said, adding that his feeling is that something will get done in time.

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.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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