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Wildland Firefighters train to fight the fires we wish they didn’t have to fight. Image Mountain Tactical Institute

Federal Wildland Firefighters in Colorado Face Hardships Need to Increase Pay to Keep Experienced Firefighters

Last Friday, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet led twelve of his Senate colleagues, including Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper, to call on U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to advance permanent, comprehensive pay reform for the country’s wildland firefighters as temporary pay increases are set to end. Bennet was in Grand Junction talking with 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 to keep experienced firefighters on the line.

“Wildland firefighters work incredibly dangerous jobs to keep Americans safe, but they’re not getting paid what they should get paid,” said Bennet. “As we face a hotter and drier future, wildfires are not going to stop and fire seasons will only get longer – and if Congress fails to act soon, we could lose the expertise of a generation or more of federal wildland firefighters. We must pass legislation immediately to ensure our wildland firefighters receive the pay and benefits they deserve.”

Short-term pay increases for over 22,000 federal firefighters will run out this week unless Congress takes action. The prospect of a federal government shutdown looms because a few right-wing congressmen are holding up any budget negotiations, just as the threat of wildfires during the fall dry season looms.

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. They conclude by urging 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 Bennet, these U.S. Senators signed on to the letter urging action on behalf of firefighters: John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also signed the letter.

Bennet has advocated to improve firefighter pay and benefits as Colorado and the West face historic threats from wildfire. In May, Bennet and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (Tim’s Act) to increase base and deployment pay and provide other benefits such as paid rest leave, housing, and mental health care.

In June, Bennet led a bipartisan group of Western senators calling on Congress to take action on a solution for firefighter pay as the fire season began across the West. Last year, Bennet welcomed the administration’s announcement that they would use $600 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase pay and provide additional support for wildland firefighters following Bennet’s call to swiftly implement these provisions. In October 2020, Bennet urged former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reform pay, job stability, and benefits for federal wildfire personnel.