Washington D.C. – This week, amid an intense heat wave, federal wildland firefighters are battling numerous rapidly-spreading fires that threaten communities in California and Oregon. At the same time, they are fighting for long-overdue and much-needed career reforms in the halls of Congress.
The wildland fire community, flanked by numerous advocacy groups, came together to launch a letter-writing campaign aimed at U.S. Senators, calling for the introduction and passage of H.R. 5631, The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. The stalled legislation is critical to securing a dwindling workforce, one driven away by meager wages and inadequate mental health benefits. For decades, federal wildland firefighters have been paid a fraction (think 50% or less) of what their state and municipal counterparts earn. They also battle work-related mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, and the rate of death by suicide among firefighters is rising,outpacing line-of-duty deaths.
The campaign is an appeal to Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), who chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management, the subcommittee widely seen as the first stepping stone to public hearings for H.R. 5631, or “Tim’s Act.”
The letters, authored by numerous wildland firefighter advocacy groups, cited multiple inequities but focused on firefighter retention and recruitment. During recent congressional hearings, what has been known on the ground for years became evident to Congress: the attrition rate of seasoned firefighters, coupled with federal agencies’ inability to hire quality candidates, has resulted in a hollowed-out workforce. Direly understaffed, firefighters cannot provide safe, effective responses to ever more destructive wildfires.
Career wildland firefighters describe a grim situation, with about 25% fewer firefighters available to respond to these emergencies. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, that translates to nearly 1,300 unfilled jobs. This shortage increases risk for the remaining first responders and decreases their ability to protect life and property.
With the final days of the 117th Congress ticking away, the first responders currently assigned to wildfires across the country are worried their voices will go unheard. “All they’re asking is that the Senate consider the reforms offered in Tim’s Act. Introduce the bill, hold hearings, and learn about why this legislation will secure the future firefighting workforce and prevent further resignations. Hear, from current and retired wildland firefighters, why the measures in Tim’s Act will go a long way toward improving the mental health system and caring for those who sacrifice so much,” said Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.