Western Wildfires

A member of the Roosevelt Hotshot Crew clears a firebreak while battling the Windy Fire on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, on the Tule River Reservation in California. His crew traveled from Colorado to fight California wildfires.

U.S. Rep Joe Neguse thinks wildland firefighters don't get the pay they deserve for the work they do and the risks they take.

Tuesday afternoon, he unveiled a bipartisan bill, called the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named for Tim Hart, a 36-year-old smokejumper from Cody, Wyoming, who died fighting the Eicks Fire in New Mexico last May.

"Tim gave the ultimate sacrifice working to protect Western communities, lives, homes, property and businesses," Neguse said on a Tuesday afternoon Zoom call. "It's our hope this bill will honor his life and his service."

Neguse's bill would overhaul the pay, benefits and job classifications of federal firefighters. The Democrat from Lafayette (who co-chairs of the bipartisan Wildfire Caucus and chair the House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands) was joined on a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon by Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California.

The legislation is also cosponsored by Rep. Salud Carbajal, another Democrat from California.

Download the bill by clicking here.

Neguse's office said Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service employs most wildland firefighters, a workforce of 10,000 employees, who combat wildfires in every state and sometimes internationally.

Wildland firefighters, however, are paid as “forestry technicians,” a federal classification that pays just $13.45 an hour.

By comparison, the average wage for Walmart employees is $16.49 an hour, after a pay raise the company announced last month.

The legislation would raise federal firefighters' pay to $20 an hour, while ensuring health care and mental health benefits, increasing paid leave and, for those with 10 years' experience, retirement benefits. The bill also would provide one week of mental health leave annually and ensure appropriate lodging while crews are away from home on duty. 

 Firefighters statistically are far more likely to commit suicide than the average American, plus they carry a 43% higher risk of lung cancer and a 30% higher risk of cardiovascular diseases.

"These changes are not only essential to support our firefighters, our hotshots and our smoke jumpers and each of the working men and women putting their lives on the line every day to tackle Western wildfires, but also increase our federal firefighting workforce, so we can get more individuals on the frontlines of these fires to protect our communities," Neguse said on Tuesday's call.

He said when federal crews are understaffed, local communities' crews have to take up the slack.

Cheney said she was proud to join Neguse on the bill "to recognize the needs of our brave wildland firefighters who risk their lives to keep our lands and our families safe.

She said smokejumpers such as Hart, as well as their families, make sacrifices to keep other families and property safe. Adequate pay is not too much to ask, Cheney said, adding that Congress should not "turn a blind eye to the courage and valor of our wildland firefighters.”

Neguse's office provided a statement from Hart's wife, Michelle.

“Tim would be humbled and honored to have this legislation be a part of his legacy and to represent the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of wildland firefighters,” she stated. “These issues were deeply important and personal to him. Wildland firefighters deserve to be recognized and compensated for the grueling conditions in which they work and for putting their lives on the line every day. This legislation is a major step forward in achieving that goal.”

Kate Dillon, a former federal wildland firefighter, who worked in Steamboat Springs during the 2020 wildfire season said the bill's proposals are comprehensive for crews.

“As someone who has struggled with both finances and mental health throughout the course of my work as a federal wildland firefighter, I'm heartened to see the potential of an expanded mental health campaign as well as pay commensurate with the skyrocketing cost of living in the West,” she said in a statement. “The addition of a workers' comp safety net for those who have worked in fire for 5 years and have developed illnesses due to the job would go a long way in showing that the federal government values its employees that put their time and lives on the line. I'm truly hopeful, after reading this bill, that federal wildland firefighting could become a sustainable career path, and hope to see some solid dates as well as a roadmap to implementation for these actions.”

The Colorado congressman's office also provided statements of support from a broad range of interests, including a number of Coloradans.

The bill is supported by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, U.S. Hotshots Association, National Smokejumper Association, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Eric Walsh Foundation, National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), Mystery Ranch Backpacks and Team Rubicon.

“I strongly support every measure to increase the salaries and benefits for Federal Wildland Firefighters as they are the primary and most important resource that is available to combat wildfire in Colorado and elsewhere,”  stated James Keating, chief of the Red, Whiteand Blue Fire Protection District in Breckenridge.

Larimer County Commissioner Kristin Stephens, in a statement provided by Neguse's office, added, "Having seen the largest wildfire in our state’s history tear through our county, we know firsthand the incredible sacrifice that federal wildland fighters make to save our homes and our forests. I applaud this bill by Congressman Neguse which seeks to fairly compensate the firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our communities.”

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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