Heinrich, Luján Urge Immediate Action on Wildland Firefighter Pay Reform
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) joined U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to lead 10 of their Senate colleagues in a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling for immediate action to advance permanent, comprehensive pay reform for the country’s wildland firefighters as temporary, short-term pay increases for over 22,000 federal firefighters are set to run out at the end of this week.
In their letter, the senators note the increasing threat posed by wildfires in the U.S. and issues that have contributed to firefighter recruitment and retention challenges in recent years – including low pay, unaffordable housing, and strain on their mental health. The lawmakers have also heard from federal wildland firefighters about the difficulties they face and the need for a long-term solution to provide wildland firefighters with the pay and benefits they deserve.
They conclude by urging Majority Leader Schumer to move forward on permanent, comprehensive pay reform in line with the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act.
“Firefighters deserve fair pay, support for their mental and physical health, and time to recover from their dangerous work. In a future with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, Congress cannot delay and deny this critical workforce’s needs,” wrote the senators.
In addition to Heinrich, Luján, and Bennet, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also signed the letter.
The text of the letter is available HERE and below.
Dear Leader Schumer:
We write to underscore the urgent need to authorize and fund a permanent solution to increase wildland firefighter recruitment and retention and prevent a workforce exodus. Bipartisan, bicameral efforts during the 117th Congress – including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Public Law 117–58) – provided temporary relief to the federal wildland firefighter workforce through a short-term pay increase of $20,000 or 50 percent of their base salary (whichever is less). This relief is running out for the over 14,893 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and 5,350 Department of the Interior (DOI) firefighters who received temporary raises.
Climate change leads to larger, more frequent, and increasingly destructive wildfires across the nation and our planet. As we all witnessed earlier this year, these fires’ smoke can travel thousands of miles and from places unfamiliar with the devastation these fires leave in their wake. As a result, wildland firefighters traveled to Eastern Canada to assist with such efforts as smoke degraded air quality in America. Consequently, this is no longer a uniquely Western problem. Wildland firefighters are on the front lines of these crises, protecting Americans, their communities, and our neighboring countries. Despite their critical work, the federal government has not provided adequate compensation or benefits to wildland firefighters for decades. Difficulties in recruitment and retention have stretched the current wildland firefighter workforce to its limits.
Wildland firefighters are an integral part of the nation’s first responder force for large scale disasters including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and acts of terrorism. Wildland firefighters serve as the front-line fire departments in many urban areas located within national forests and federal lands. They respond to road accidents, house fires, and other urban emergencies like other fire departments and are integrated in mutual response agreements with state and local fire departments across the country, so it is a matter of national security to invest in this workforce.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the total acres burned by wildfire has doubled in the last 20 years, with over 7.5 million acres burned in 2022 alone. Between 2017 and 2021, wildfires destroyed over 12,000 homes, businesses, and other structures on average annually, more than triple the preceding five-year period. These fires are exceptionally expensive, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating wildfires costs during the past five years reached nearly $67 billion. Climate data shows that wildfire season has increased by 80 days since the 1970s and climate projections show the wildfire season will continue to last longer.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found that low pay, poor work-life balance, and mental health challenges, among other factors, limit federal wildland firefighter recruitment and retention. Firefighters deserve fair pay, support for their mental and physical health, and time to recover from their dangerous work. In a future with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, Congress cannot delay and deny this critical workforce’s needs.
We are grateful for the bravery of our wildland firefighters. We remain committed to delivering permanent, comprehensive pay reform for our wildland firefighters by the end of this fiscal year, in line with the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the specific pay provisions included in the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (S. 2272) which include the key components of the Administration’s proposal. We urge an immediate vote to advance permanent solutions to ensure they get the pay and benefits they deserve.