HELENA — Two years ago, Congress approved temporary pay boosts for federal wildland firefighters – intended as a short-term solution to support recruitment and retention. Now, though, those increases are set to expire at the end of September, unless lawmakers take action again. Montana’s two U.S. senators are both backing an effort to avoid a “pay cliff” for these firefighters.
“I hope fire season is over with by the end of September, but chances are it won't be – and we need these folks,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. “We need them out there fighting fires.”
“These men and women spend every fire season on the frontlines protecting our communities and our families,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines. “I believe it's important their pay reflects this.”
In 2021, Congress approved up to $600 million for the pay increases, as part of a bipartisan infrastructure package. According to the Biden administration, nearly 20,000 firefighters – more than 14,000 with the U.S. Forest Service and 5,000 under the U.S. Department of the Interior – had received a total of $381 million in supplemental pay as of June.
The temporary increases boosted firefighters’ 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 the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.
Daines and Tester are both co-sponsors of the “Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act,” which would provide permanent increases in firefighters’ base pay. The bill has bipartisan support, as does a similar bill introduced in the House this week.
Daines said there could be clear consequences if Congress fails to act soon and firefighter salaries drop to where they were before.
“Several Montana wildland firefighters have told me they fear that, without making this pay increase permanent, up to 50% of federal wildland firefighters will quit,” he said. “The time to make this pay raise permanent is now.”
Tester said he’s optimistic a fix can get through before the deadline – possibly added on to another key bill. He said the importance of wildland firefighters is now getting through to lawmakers from all parts of the country.
“A month and a half ago, Washington, D.C. – the whole East Coast – was covered with smoke from Canadian fires,” said Tester. “That may be the best thing that could have ever happened, because that's what we live with here in Montana. Every August, we end up with smoky weather more times than not. And I think it brought about an awareness that wasn't there before, and I think it helped on this bill.”
The Senate is set to be back in session after Labor Day, and the House will return a week later. That gives lawmakers just under a month to advance the bill before the end of the fiscal year.