Firefighter advocates speak out on ‘grueling’ conditions

As the wildfire season becomes more frequent and severe, House lawmakers push to increase federal firefighter pay and offer additional health benefits.

By Vanessa Montalbano

Federal wildland firefighters on the frontlines of climate change are overwhelmed and undercompensated, firefighter representatives and U.S. fire administrators testified before a House Natural Resources subcommittee Wednesday. Currently, their salaries are far below those in some county, state and municipal fire departments, at a starting rate of $13.45 per hour. 

“We are often the lowest paid people on the fire line,” said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which advocates for federal firefighters, during a House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing.

But, she said, federal firefighters make up the majority of those on the ground in affected areas. These low wages makes it increasingly difficult to retain employees and keep up morale between deployments, she said.

Many firefighters work overtime and rely on hazard pay just to make ends meet, Martin told lawmakers. Others, she said, work an average of 16-hour daily shifts, sleep in the dirt and have limited time off to reset and reconnect with loved ones.

Lawmakers said that the newly introduced Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification Act would increase pay to $20 an hour and offer a number of benefits regarding mental and physical health as well as paid leave.

The legislation is named after a smokejumper who died May 24 after a hard landing while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico. The act was introduced by subcommittee Chair Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and supported by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)

Tim’s Act would affect the approximately 15,000 federal firefighters that are deployed nationwide for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service. But, it doesn’t include provisions for volunteers, who are the vast majority of firefighters under local and state jurisdiction.

Ranking member Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) said federal firefighters are stretched thin and that the force is “not sustainable as is.” He urged his colleagues to consider short and long term solutions that would address climate change and actively treat the forests, too.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Texas) agreed. “We should be paying our firefighters more and we should also be maintaining our forests,” he said. “That’s the only way to get ahead of this.”

More than 47,000 wildfires have burned across the U.S. so far this year alone, scorching roughly 6.5 million acres of land. Last year, fires burned a record-breaking 10.2 million acres and caused billions of dollars in damage, leading to dozens of deaths. 

The fire season is becoming longer — now lasting the entire year instead of four months — and more widespread — affecting areas that have never experienced the infernos before, according to NPR. 

The current wildfire season includes 99 consecutive days in Preparation 5 status, the highest level of wildland fire activity, during which 35 to 85 large and complex wildland fires are occurring simultaneously across the country.

Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy chief of State and Private Forestry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told lawmakers that when this high level is in action resources are extremely limited and they are forced to “prioritize the most at-risk fires.”

During those months, she said, firefighters were working around the clock with little reprieve. Plus, they were unable to focus efforts on prevention and forest resiliency programs as all resources went toward suppression.

“The fires are far outpacing treatments,” she said, emphasizing an urgency for growth within the force so more mitigation work can be done to address climate change before, during and after the fires. 

Increasing the pay wage, Hall-Rivera told lawmakers, would bring more people to the service and add more capacity to its abilities, therefore also allowing firefighters to have a better work-life balance.

Lucas Mayfield, who serves with Martin as vice president at Grassroots Wildlands Firefighters, spent 18 years employed by the U.S. Forest Service as a firefighter. He said he left his job in 2019 because of the enormous toll it was taking on him mentally.

“This job and the demands that are placed on federal wildland firefighters led to seasonal depression, anxiety and the thoughts that my family would be better off with a life insurance check,” Mayfield testified. His decision to leave, he said, allowed him to put his family first for the first time. 

Neguse said in a statement that recent studies indicate that firefighters nationwide commit suicide 30 times as often as the general public and have a 30% increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and 43% increase for lung cancer.

The main challenges contributing to wildland firefighter suicide is the length of duration spent on the scene and the little time spent at home, said Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, an organization established in 2010 to educate firefighters and their families about behavioral health issues. 

He said federal firefighters are facing increasingly traumatic circumstances — and these are only getting worse. Plus, Dill said in an interview that the leading reason for federal firefighter death by suicide is marital and familial issues.

“They are gone for so long so when they go home, they don’t know how to cope,” he said. “They have relationship issues from being gone for so long, the lack of an adrenaline rush, lack of pay. This all adds to depression, addiction and financial woes.”

Since 1992, Dill said he has verified 44 wildland firefighters who have died by suicide.

“Their lives depend on our ability to take action,” Martin of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters testified.

Wildland firefighters have been “historically misclassified, underpaid and oftentimes left uncared for,” Mayfield told lawmakers. He added that Tim’s Act is the kind of legislation that might have kept him on the job.

The proposed increase in pay and capacity of the workforce would let people spend more time at home, Dill said, hopefully addressing those marital and familial tensions. But, if not properly implemented, he said it would be nothing more than a “bandaid.”

“If we don’t pay the cost,” Mayfield said, “We will continue to lose critical infrastructure, towns, first responders, and American citizens.” 

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