There are Wildland rescue teamsalarm bells ring over the lack of affordable housing. Anyone listening?
As the United States enters another brutal forest fire season, the country is facing a serious shortage of federal firefighters. Last month, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore told Congress that the number of crews in some Western states is as short as 50 percent as the agency struggles to maintain and expand its ranks. This is a problem that is pale compared to public and private workplaces, and is associated with significantly lower wages than firefighters in areas where they are assigned to protect firefighters.
This comes as no surprise to Pete Dutchick, a member of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a committee in California that advocates for veteran firefighters and higher wages and housing pensions. In his two decades of service, he sometimes resorted to living by truck; While firefighters’ salaries start at $ 11 an hour, many of their co-workers live outside their cars instead of paying rent for the season, he said.
Work for the new generation of firefighters has worsened as housing costs have risen while salaries have stagnated. In recent years, Dutchick has been leading a crew of military veterans who have tried to “beat” rodent-filled apartments in Northern California.
“They come back after being on fire for 14-21 days, and they have rat and mouse feces all over their beds,” Dutchik said. Some decided to live in their own cars instead; several people then left the profession.
In California alone, sustained low wages, which have risen to a minimum of $ 15 an hour in just one year, are facing a longer and more intense fire season with climate change and the affordable housing crisis.
For some of those nearly 15,000 workers hired by the Department of Agriculture and Home Affairs and tasked with protecting federal lands, the gap between their salaries and housing prices has widened, a 12 percent increase in the state since last year. the last drop. According to one recently BuzzFeed News According to the report, there are more than 1,000 firefighters in California.
One former seasonal forest firefighter who lives in the Gulf of San Francisco and wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation (the Forest Service instructs wild firefighters not to speak to the media without the agency’s permission and punishes employees for it). Nexus Media News Part of the reason for his recent retirement was instability in the apartment.
As the years passed, he slept in a tent outside his duty station and entered a three-room house with several colleagues. He said he rented an apartment for $ 1,200 a month on his own, but that it cost him about half of his basic monthly salary. Like the Dutchick, he eventually decided to live outside his car during the fire season (off-season, he usually lived about 100 miles from where he was located). He had no place to store perishable food, and he struggled to maintain good hygiene, especially during the hot summer months. He left his sedan windows open at night to cool off and became a target for mosquitoes.
“You don’t think about these little details until you’re there,” he said. “What will I eat tonight?” until he says. Or, ‘Am I going to sleep tonight?’
“There will always be suffering from wildfires,” Dutchik said. He said that the work itself was physically tiring, often performed for long hours at high temperatures, and that during sleep periods of intense work, sleep was “dirty” for several hours. One report found that 10,000 U.S. Forest Service firefighters were injured in an average of 2,500 workplaces each year. It also requires mental damage: It is estimated that field firefighters are 30 times more likely to die as a result of suicide than the general population of the United States. Given all this, the apartment should not be an additional stressor, Dutchick said.
“I think it’s very important to get back to work when you’re not on fire, to get together, to relax and to feel a little normal,” he said.
In April, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters posted calls on Instagram and others Social Media Documentation of non-standard residential facilities for field firefighters, as well as facilities owned by government agencies. (Although federal agencies do not guarantee housing, it is granted to certain groups on a first-come, first-served basis, and in some areas crews are required to live in government-owned housing.)
in response to calls shared with Nexus Media News, Firefighters described in detail the dilapidated housing conditions, including broken plumbing systems, contaminated water, mold, insect infestations and even structural concerns, and a firefighter complained about the apartment slipping from the foundation.
A lease from the National Park Service classified a full-time field firefighter as a “required resident” and hired him directly from his salary. From June 2022 to December 2023, the tenant’s rent is expected to increase from about $ 550 to $ 800, despite the agency’s rent being rated “fair / weak” by the agency. The public relations officer of the National Park Service confirmed that such rents have risen sharply this year due to inflation.
Other respondents shared their experiences with the camp due to living outside their cars or workplaces or lack of affordable options. A firefighter in Lake Tahoe, the site of last year’s Caldor Fire, said he could not pay rent in the area for $ 16 an hour. “This year I will live outside a trailer parked at our base,” he said.
The situation of federal firefighters came to the fore last year when Tim Hart, who jumped from smoke in New Mexico, died from his injuries after fighting a forest fire. His widow, Michelle Hart, was left with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills after her husband’s death.
In October, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) Tim Hart introduced the Wildland Firefighting Classification and Payment Parity Act, which will increase salaries and offer housing benefits to more deployed field firefighters. 50 miles from home. The following month, Congress approved $ 600 million for a federal firefighter’s salary for understaffed areas as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Labor Act.
On June 21, after months of delays, the White House announced temporary pay rises, including payments that have been in effect since last fall, which will serve as a “bridge for two years as the administration works with Congress on longer-term reforms.”
Asked about the housing issue, E. Wade Muehlhof, Deputy Press Secretary of the National Forest Service, said. Nexus Media News, “The Forest Service has a team that looks after long-term housing issues for all our employees. We know that housing and housing prices can be very high in the communities we serve. ” When contacted by email, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior declined to comment.
The Tim Act, despite the support of both parties, still sits before the House Subcommittee on Protection and Forestry. He described the introduction of the bill in Congress as an “uphill battle” and acknowledged his concerns about its passage in the Senate.
He noted the recent adoption of a bill in the House of Representatives as a cause for optimism, which would make it easier for firefighters to access health benefits. Similar legislation has been in place for more than 20 years, but has not been passed. He has not yet passed the Senate.
“The Senate’s ability to pass key laws like the Tim Act has been hampered in recent years,” Nequse said. Nexus Media News. “A lot of my colleagues and I say this is where all the good ideas die.”
HR2499 – 2022 Federal Firefighters Justice Act
By Colleen Hagerty
Reprinted from Nexus Media.
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