Flathead Beacon: Tester Turns Up Heat on Firefighter Paycheck Protection Measure

by Anusha Mathur

The wildfire season in Montana may be winding down, but when it comes to firefighter protections, it’s the eleventh hour. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is racing against the clock to help pass the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act before existing safeguards reach their sunset date on Sept. 30.

The proposed bipartisan legislation would permanently codify base pay increases and take steps to address the significant physical and mental burnout among federal wildland firefighters. This measure, sponsored by Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., also has support from Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. It comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior grapple with an increasing number of resignations among service members.

“When you talk wildland, those are high-intense situations, and stress when you’re working 16 [or] 18-hour days on a fire,” George Richards, president of the Montana State Firefighters Association and the Montana State Council of Firefighters, said. “When I got hired, you used to see guys do 36, 34, 30 years on the job. Now, you’re lucky to make it to 20.”

Hundreds of federal wildland firefighters serve the state of Montana. They’re responsible for fire suppression, management and control on public lands, often in brutal conditions with limited escape options. Across the country, the fire season has lengthened and intensified as wildland fires become more formidable to battle, putting increased pressure on an already strained minimum-wage firefighting workforce.

“We’re not gonna get boots on the ground to fight these fires,” Richards said. “Your gallon of milk and my block of cheese goes up just like anybody else and if you can’t provide a livable wage for these professions, people are going to go do something less strenuous and make more money doing it.”

This year alone, Montana experienced over 1,500 fires, burning upwards of 116,000 acresOf that acreage,46,736 acres were on National Forest System lands.

“Every fire season, these brave men and women are our first line of defense against disaster, and they’ve earned the right to be fairly compensated for the dangerous work they do —including for adequate recovery time after a tough fire,” Tester said.

In addition to Tester and Daines, the bill has Democratic support from Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., as well as Republican support from John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.

At a June hearing for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines emphasized the increasingly brutal toll that wildland firefighting takes on service members. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 30-50% of firefighters will leave the workforce if the new Protection Act is not passed.

“Over the past two decades, wildfires have become hotter, longer burning, more damaging,” Daines said as he addressed Congress in June. “We now talk about having a fire year versus a fire season.”

Despite the increasingly long, dangerous and complex seasons, firefighter compensation has not increased commensurately.

“For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced these challenges while their pay has lagged [behind] their state, local and private counterparts in some areas of the U.S.,” U.S. Forest Service Northern Region Public Affairs Officer Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan stated in an email. “While I don’t want to comment directly to the legislation or speculate as to what the holdup is, we know avoiding this pay cliff is imperative for retaining and recruiting the federal wildland firefighting workforce.”

The proposed legislation would make permanent the protections offered to service members under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Passed in November 2021, the law attempted to address growing frustration and burnout by passing a temporary pay raise and establishing additional rest periods after intensive fire responses.

It gave 12,000 Forest Service firefighters a pay supplement, equal to either an extra $20,000 per year or 50% of their base pay. Richards said the impact was tangible across Montana’s firefighting workforce.

“A lot of firefighters at that time in that wildland industry were making 12 bucks an hour,” Richards said. “By increasing that, it allows for better recruitment, dedication. The turnover is definitely lower.”

Tester, who chairs the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and is a longtime advocate for wildfire preparedness, co-sponsored the pending firefighter legislation back in July. For him, the Forest Service’s predicted resignation statistics are alarming and highlight the need to push this bill through.

“Montana’s wildland firefighters put their lives on the line to protect our communities and public lands, and the least we can do is ensure fair and competitive pay for the work they do,” Tester said. “Our bipartisan bill will make that compensation permanent. I’ll be fighting to get it across the finish line before the September 30th deadline.”

With the legislation currently lacking enough momentum to pass, Tester and the other co-sponsors of the bill sent a letter to Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Sept. 14 advocating for additional support from lawmakers.

“Due to the dangers that wildfires pose to our forests and communities, a lack of action to ensure the fair treatment of our federal wildland firefighting workforce would jeopardize national security,” the senators wrote in their letter.

With mass resignations on the line and time running out, Richards said the time has come to support the wildland firefighting workforce.

“You want to be able to have that feeling that you serve your community well and you want to be taken care of,” Richards said of himself and his colleagues. “If you pay a livable wage with decent benefits, you have a good retirement, and a positive area where you’re supported by a community and policymakers, you’re going to have recruitment.”