We are pushing our federal firefighting workforce to a breaking point. That must change.
As wildfires across the west grow more intense and more dangerous, federal firefighters leave behind their lives and families for months at a time, working an average of 16-hour daily shifts, sleeping in the dirt, with incredibly limited time off to reset and reconnect with loved ones.
These federal firefighters are highly skilled, and their vital services support every major wildfire response in the U.S. A year ago, as fires raged simultaneously in our districts, local crews relied on federal support and specialty crews to control and manage these record-setting wildfires. Two of these fires, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, became the first and second largest in Colorado state history, together burning nearly 400,000 acres over the course of several months. Simultaneously, the Mullen fire was burning in southeastern Wyoming. This fire spread into an area heavily affected by beetle-killed deadfall, at one point crews were reported to be battling a wall of flames. These fires brought to light the low pay and patchwork of benefits our federal wildland firefighters receive for this dangerous work.
Currently, our wildland firefighting workforce are primarily classified as “forestry technicians,” paid an hourly wage of $13.45 at the GS-3 level and are often not provided adequate health care benefits or housing while on the job. Often health and mental health benefits provided are seasonal and can’t be accessed in the off season. According to recent studies, firefighters nationwide commit suicide 30 times as often as the general public, have a 30 percent increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and a 43 percent increase for lung cancer. The intense and dangerous nature of this work is taking a toll on mental health, marriages and families.
It’s long past time for Congress and the federal government to fully recognize the ongoing service and sacrifice of federal wildland firefighters by raising compensation, providing essential benefits and classifying them appropriately.
As wildfire seasons turn to wildfire years, the demands we are placing on federal firefighters will only grow. It will take years of heavy investments into improve forest health, to change this scenario. Until then, wildland firefighters are our primary line of defense.
We’re proposing major changes to the way we pay, classify and support our federal firefighters, changes that are long overdue and critical both to safeguard our federal firefighting workforce capacity and to adequately resource these individuals.
The legislation we unveiled last week — Tim’s Act — is comprehensive, bipartisan and widely supported throughout the firefighting community, it will change pay structures, ensure fundamental benefits, provide stable housing, guarantee specialized mental health support and address classification.
Our bill would create a new wildland firefighters federal classification series, so wildland firefighters are appropriately classified for the dangerous work they are doing. It would also provide a much overdue pay raise for federal firefighters. With the hourly pay raise we are proposing, plus changes in work schedules to ensure our wildland firefighting workforce is compensated the entire time they are deployed on a fire, we estimate that most federal wildland firefighters could see upwards of a $20,000 annual pay raise to a base rate around $57,000.
Our bill would also ensure health care and mental health benefits for our federal firefighting workforce and establish specialized trauma-informed counseling to specifically meet the needs of wildland firefighters and their families. We are also proposing changes in retirement, increased paid leave, housing assistance and tuition assistance.
Earlier this year, Tim Hart, a 36-year-old smokejumper from Cody, Wyo., died while working on a fire in southern New Mexico. His sacrifice in service to our nation and our communities embodies the bravery and the sacrifice of our federal firefighters, this bill is in honor of his memory.
Throughout our nation, our smokejumpers, hotshot crews, helitacks, rappelers and countless specialized trained federal firefighters are answering the call of duty. This bill honors their dedication to protecting homes, livelihoods and our communities.
Neguse represents Colorado’s 2nd District in the U.S. Congress and serves as co-chair of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus. Cheney represents Wyoming’s At-Large Congressional District and is a vice chair of the Congressional Western Caucus.