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President Biden says he's increasing pay for federal firefighters and hiring more of them. It's part of a broader proposal as the administration says climate change is making the battle against wildfires a year-round mission. As Joe Wertz of Colorado Public Radio reports, the federal firefighting force has been struggling with staffing shortages and low morale.
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JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Homeowner Dave Schulman and a friend are fixing a gate in front of his ranch in western Colorado. Not far away, emergency vehicles block the road, and a wildfire burns through a national forest.
DAVE SCHULMAN: We're doing everything we can to keep this place as safe as possible.
WERTZ: It's unusually early for this kind of fire, one sign of how the traditional fire season is growing longer and more intense.
SCHULMAN: Of course, this was unwelcomed and surprising.
WERTZ: Hundreds of federal wildland firefighters are working to contain the blaze. But most are temporary employees who only work through the summer. Their starting pay is around $13 per hour, much lower than they'd make at a local state or private fire department. And none of them are actually considered firefighters on paper. They're forestry or range technicians, says Chris Ives, a squad leader for a hotshot crew in southwest Colorado.
CHRIS IVES: It's just a convenient bureaucratic sidestep of just, you know, labeling us as forestry technicians so that they don't have to give us the same benefits.
WERTZ: This is Ives' 10th season with the U.S. Forest Service. It took him six years to get a permanent job. At the same time, climate change is increasing the size, duration and complexity of wildfires. Ives echoes a half dozen others who told NPR all of this leaves them feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.
IVES: Not being able to take time off unless it's a funeral or a wedding. And just having that every year - it gets a little more and more tiring and taxing on your psyche.
WERTZ: President Biden has called federal firefighter pay ridiculously low. At a meeting with governors Wednesday, he said the U.S. is late to the game and must act fast.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're remembering the horrific scenes from last year - orange skies that look like end of days, smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe, more than 10 million acres burned, billions of dollars in economic damage.
WERTZ: Biden says for now he will use bonuses and incentives to boost firefighter pay to at least $15 an hour. Administration officials say they will also allow seasonal employees to work longer. And they'll train and equip more federal workers and military personnel to help if things get really bad. If you look on the federal government's primary job site, there are regularly about 150 openings for forestry technicians across the country. A Forest Service spokesperson acknowledged that uncompetitive wages have led to high turnover and low recruitment. Federal firefighters say low pay is hard to deal with because it's so expensive to live in fire-prone areas. Think tourist spots and resort towns in national forests with million-dollar homes. Ben McClane leads a small fire crew out of southern Washington.
BEN MCCLANE: It's almost like you're hoping for charity from the local community to let you sleep in their basement or something or camp out in a tent or in your truck.
WERTZ: All of the firefighters NPR spoke to said similar things. Most had spent time living in their cars or trucks. One woman working in southwestern Colorado says she lives in an insulated shed because it's the only shelter she can afford. Stephen Pyne is a former wildland firefighter who now teaches courses on fire and fire history at Arizona State University. He says the U.S. Forest Service has long struggled with staffing...
STEPHEN PYNE: ...Because it was a seasonal occupation. So they didn't want to hire people full time. They only wanted them when they needed them.
WERTZ: Now Pyne says it's like the federal government is fighting 2021 fires with a 1951 staffing mindset. He says the U.S. Forest Service has shrunk along with the federal workforce and faces many of the same labor challenges in other sectors.
PYNE: It's the gig economy. You've got people who are working for relatively low wages, seasonal, very low career advancement for many of them. That sounds like a lot of unhappy workers in today's economy.
WERTZ: Some firefighters say $15 an hour is still too low. One advocacy group called President Biden's moves an encouraging first step. Biden is pledging to work with lawmakers on a long-term fix to create a permanent firefighting workforce. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Denver.
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