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Wildland firefighters fight for pay bump as Congress looks to next year’s budget

A firefighter with the US Forest Service works on a prescribed fire near El Rito, NM, in 2023.
Alice Fordham
A firefighter with the US Forest Service works on a prescribed fire near El Rito, NM, in 2023.

Advocates for wildland firefighters are calling on Congress to approve proposed budget increases to the Department of the Interior and permanently raise pay for firefighters.

This aims to combat poor recruitment and retention of firefighters in the midst of a wildfire crisis exacerbated by climate change

This summer, Congress is set to look at President Joe Biden’s budgetary requests for FY 2025. Included in that is $1.6 billion for the Interior Department to reduce wildfire risk.

“Fire is something that's gonna knock on every congressional district and every state’s door at some point throughout the year,” said Jonathon Golden, a retired wildland firefighter who works on policy for Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

He’s calling on Congressional leadership in the southwest to approve Biden’s proposed investments in the federal firefighter workforce.

“The wildfire issue is more than just: see fire, put water on fire,” Golden said. “There’s an infrastructure component that goes with it.”

Golden said that firefighter pay, which starts at as little as $15 an hour, doesn't reflect the demands and dangers of the job.

Firefighters told KUNM last year that working conditions are appalling in some places where housing might be too expensive to acquire or simply doesn’t exist – leaving some to sleep in their trucks or, in some cases, on the side of the road.

The president is asking for $387 million over his 2023 ask to help address long-standing recruitment and retention challenges, boost pay, enhance health services, and increase government housing capabilities.

The budget also earmarks $770 million to improve community preparedness for wildfires.

Supporting firefighters is popular on both sides of the aisle, but hardline Republican opposition to government spending could stillhinder the proposed increase.

Several laws designed to improve wildland firefighter pay have sat in Congressional committees for months now – including Tim’s Act and the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act.

This all comes as parts of New Mexico are expected to have an “above average” and significant fire season, according to a report released this month by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Firefighters did receive a temporary pay bump as New Mexico was grappling with its largest wildfire ever in 2022, but it has since expired.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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