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Federal wildland firefighters are facing a sudden pay cut

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Federal wildland firefighters have faced staffing shortages and low morale for more than a decade. Lawmakers tried to create a fix by increasing their pay, but the money for that pay is running out. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo has the story.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Rachel Granberg didn't plan on being a firefighter.

RACHEL GRANBERG: I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.

BUSTILLO: That's what she went to grad school for. But along the way, she found herself working for the federal government in the nation's vast forests.

GRANBERG: Ended up just completely dropping all of the wildlife biology stuff and fell in love with fire. It is so cool.

BUSTILLO: Now she works for what she calls her chosen family, on hand crews and helicopters putting out wildfires and managing public lands alongside thousands of others employed by the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments.

GRANBERG: Oh, golly. Every day is different. That's part of the fun. You never know what you're going to get. Every fire throws a curveball at you.

BUSTILLO: But there's one curveball Granberg and nearly 15,000 other federal wildland firefighters can't fight off.

GRANBERG: Will there be a pay fix? How many people are quitting? How many people are just going to finish out the season and never come back?

BUSTILLO: Federal wildland firefighters stand to lose up to half of their salaries in the coming weeks. That's because last year, they received pay bumps as a part of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

JAELITH HALL-RIVERA: The bill was temporary. It was always meant to be temporary.

BUSTILLO: That's Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera.

HALL-RIVERA: We are now coming to a time when that is going to go away. And in its place, firefighters don't know what to expect 'cause right now, there's nothing.

BUSTILLO: Hall-Rivera said that fire seasons are becoming fire years. This means more people are needed to fight fires and manage forests for longer time frames and more often, and the current pay and benefit scale was not designed for this intense work.

HALL-RIVERA: We also are taking, I think, a much larger toll on our employees because of the way that we have to respond.

BUSTILLO: That's why federal wildland firefighters have been asking for a new pay scale for over a decade.

BEN MCLANE: I could walk down the street to Home Depot and get an entry-level job that pays more than my job does as a captain.

BUSTILLO: That's Ben McLane, a wildland firefighter currently out on assignment.

MCLANE: Recruiting people to do this job is becoming more difficult, which means we have to work longer and longer hours and longer and longer seasons.

BUSTILLO: Entry-level jobs pay about $15 an hour. A captain like McLane is barely making $70,000 now. Next month, that will drop to 50,000 if nothing changes. But some state outfits will pay $50,000 just for people without experience. And only Congress can come up with a permanent solution to the pay problem. There are efforts in both the House and the Senate. Still, lawmakers have a limited number of days to reach a deal and include it in any effort to prevent a government shutdown on September 30.

GRANBERG: I am preparing for that government shutdown by - I am always available. I have been working all my days off. I have been burning myself out just because I know that that shutdown might be coming.

BUSTILLO: That's Granberg again, who fears a shutdown could further impact her pay. But...

GRANBERG: Even if the shutdown doesn't happen, I'm going to receive a pay decrease, and I need to be ready for it.

BUSTILLO: The Interior Department is set to run out of funds for firefighter supplemental pay on September 30. The Agriculture Department estimates it will run out in November.

Ximena Bustillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.