HELENA — When Congress returns from their summer recess next month, they’ll have to get to work quickly on budget negotiations ahead of the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Some advocates remain hopeful that, as part of that work, lawmakers will move forward on an agreement to extend a temporary pay boost for federal wildland firefighters – set to expire when the next fiscal year starts.
“We certainly hoped that it wouldn't come to this, but it has – and now we need congressional action,” said Lucas Mayfield, co-founder and president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
In 2021, Congress approved up to $600 million for pay increases to firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior. They boosted their base pay by up to $20,000 or 50% of their previous base salary. However, the money to support those increases is set to run out at the end of September.
Mayfield spent 18 years with USFS, including 12 on hotshot crews. He said the job often came with financial stress.
“I have a wonderful wife and a daughter, but I needed as much overtime and hazard pay as possible within that five- to six-month season – to make sure that I could pull my weight during the offseason and assist in taking care of mortgage payments, car payments, childcare, all those things,” he said. “And just the evolution of the career – as people turned it into a career, the income associated with it didn't match the time, energy, effort and expertise that this workforce is comprised of.”
Mayfield now lives in Gallatin County and works for a private company that supplies gear for wildland firefighters. He helped start Grassroots Wildland Firefighters in 2019. The organization is now urging Congress to pass the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, which would provide permanent increases in base pay. Montana’s two U.S. senators – Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester – are both co-sponsors.
Mayfield says the temporary pay supplements are making a huge difference for federal firefighters, and if they’re allowed to expire, it’ll be a serious hit to the workforce.
“Then I think you're going to see a lot of people walk out the door,” he said.
He said federal agencies have to compete with state and local fire services as well as fire-adjacent jobs in the private sector, and he’s already seen many firefighters moving on.
“The people that were leaving are in middle management, so they're the ones that are bringing the new firefighters into the federal system and teaching them the right way to go about business,” he said. “They're also the ones that you want to see elevate into those upper management positions to ensure that we have continuity, resiliency and a highly functioning federal workforce.”
In the Forest Service’s Northern Region, which covers Montana, northern Idaho and parts of the Dakotas, the agency employed 1,444 firefighters as of July 25. Nationwide, they had 11,187, which leaders said is at 99% of their goal for the year.
In a statement to MTN, a USFS spokesperson said their firefighters are dealing with more severe wildfires and fire seasons that are extending into “fire years,” making hiring and retaining firefighters more important than ever. They said the Biden administration is asking Congress for an additional $45 million to fund pay reforms for wildland firefighters.
“We know avoiding this pay cliff is imperative for retaining and recruiting the federal wildland firefighting workforce,” they said. “Federal wildland firefighters must be offered competitive salaries and the pay and improved working conditions they so deserve.”
Mayfield said the proposals in the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act – including a base increase and a daily supplement for days firefighters are away from their duty station – would keep salaries close to what came out of the 2021 bill, but that that would only be a start. He said Grassroots Wildland Firefighters will continue to advocate for more comprehensive reforms, including additional supports for firefighters’ health, wellbeing and housing needs. For now, though, he said this would be an important first step.
“Is it perfect? No,” he said. “Is it needed and necessary, and does it have to happen? Yes.”
The Senate is set to be back in session after Labor Day, and the House will return a week later.