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A massive pay cut for federal wildland firefighters may be averted. But not for long

Wildland firefighters on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado on July 2, 2023.
Wildland firefighters on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado on July 2, 2023.

A long running effort to permanently boost pay for thousands of federal wildland firefighters appears to be gaining some traction in Congress. But fire managers warn it could be too little too late to prevent mass resignations in the coming weeks.

The House earlier this month passed an amendment extending a temporary pay increase of $20,000 approved by President Biden through next year. While a broader bill in the Senate that would make those pay bumps permanent remains stalled, it appears the latest stopgap budget deal averting a government shutdown will also avert - for now — a massive pay cut many firefighters feared was coming by Friday.

"Basically this is like a band aid. It's not a fix. We need a fix," says Mike Alba, a union organizer and engine captain on the Los Padres National Forest.

Firefighters want a permanent fix

Rookie federal firefighters on the front lines of America's wildfire crisis only make about $15 hour, up from $13 an hour after President Biden approved a temporary pay bump in 2021. Funds from the infrastructure law later went on to give many federal firefighters a $20,000 boost to their salaries — a typical base salary for a year round entry level firefighter is only $34,000.

In the wildland firefighting world right now, Congress's budget dysfunctions are a big distraction for firefighters, according to Tom Dillon, a captain for the Alpine Hot Shots, an elite federal firefighting crew based in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Dillon says his teams are all talking about the future of their paychecks when they should be focusing on firefighting tactics and training and keeping communities safe.

"It's kind of a slap in the face," Dillon says. "The folks on Capitol Hill, some of them aren't even aware of who we are and what we do and that there is a federal wildland firefighting workforce."

There are an estimated 17,000 federal wildland firefighters. Most are like Mike Alba and work for the U.S. Forest Service. Alba says crews are burdened by increasingly hazardous and dangerous work, flattening overtime pay and growing mental health challenges.

For Alba, the one time pay bump is a lifeline.

"For myself, I'm able to spend time with my kids more," he says.

Morale is low and mass layoffs could be coming

Now that the U.S. House appears to have narrowly averted another government shutdown, Alba will likely keep his higher pay, but only until early January unless Congress acts to make the 2021 pay boost permanent. But morale is low. Three guys on his engine alone have quit for higher pay and better benefits for nearby city and state agencies.

He doesn't blame them.

"They give us a little bit of taste, like, 'hey, we want you guys to stay.' Now it's, 'oh you know, we might not give it to you,'" Alba says. "We are worth the squeeze."

The union representing federal employees is warning that, based on its surveys, at least thirty percent of the federal wildland firefighting force could quit if pay isn't permanently boosted. Meanwhile, climate and forest management issues are only making wildfires more severe and deadly.

In Colorado, Tom Dillon says the recent fixes are only band-aids. And the continued budget impasse is already affecting recruitment for next year.

"They are looking for things like work life balance. They are looking for things like time off. They are looking to not live in vans any longer," Dillon says.

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As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.