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Wildland firefighters are split on whether higher pay would keep them in the industry


At the same time wildfire seasons in the U.S. have been getting longer and more destructive, it's become harder to retain experienced wildland firefighters. The new infrastructure law that President Biden signed could boost pay for them by 50%. The Mountain West News Bureau's Nate Hegyi reports on whether that will be enough to stop high attrition.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Dave Carman is an experienced wildland firefighter in Montana, but last summer he was living in his truck.

DAVE CARMAN: I would just find trailheads or forest service land. The local campground host was really understanding, and he looked after me, made sure I had a place to stay within the campground even if the sites were taken up.

HEGYI: That's because, like a lot of his colleagues, his pay hasn't kept up with skyrocketing housing prices in the West. He made $15 an hour this summer. He gets extra overtime and hazard pay when he's out actively fighting fires, but it's hard to predict when that happens and how often.

CARMAN: It's not stable. You never really know how much money you'll be making in a given season.

HEGYI: The whole situation made Carman second-guess whether firefighting was really a great career move. But then the infrastructure bill passed, and now there's a good chance he'll see his base pay increase by 50%. And his job could turn from a seasonal one into a permanent one, and that looks awfully sweet for Carman's future in the fire service. He could afford rent, maybe even start a family someday.

CARMAN: It would turn the firefighting job into a long-term opportunity.

HEGYI: That's the goal - to get more seasoned firefighters like Carman to stay on the job for years or even decades to come, especially as blazes in the West become more severe and more dangerous. During peak season, about 15,000 federal firefighters are battling blazes. But in recent years, more experienced firefighters are quitting after the season ends.

RIVA DUNCAN: A lot of them are getting out of fire completely.

HEGYI: Riva Duncan is a member of the nonprofit group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. She's also a retired fire chief with the U.S. Forest Service. That agency loses about 10% of its fire workforce every year.

DUNCAN: Because the demands of the job, being away from home and family, you know, just don't make it worth it with the low pay.

HEGYI: She calls the provisions in the infrastructure bill a good first step towards boosting recruitment and retention.

DUNCAN: Some people who are on the fence or thinking about leaving have decided to stay - right? - because they finally feel a sense of hope. They feel like things are changing for the better. So that's a really good thing.

HEGYI: But she also warns that the infrastructure bill's funding is only good for five or six years. There's another bill moving through Congress called the Tim Hart Act that would make these changes permanent. It would also add one week of mental health leave during the fire season. That's something Patrick Benson wants to see. He just finished his first season as a wildland firefighter.

PATRICK BENSON: It's a tough job.

HEGYI: We're walking in a park on a cold day in his hometown of Missoula, Mont., and Benson says sometimes he's working every day of the week during the fire season for long hours without much of a break, sweating in the heat, digging a fire line.

BENSON: It's exhausting. It's exhausting mentally. It's exhausting physically. And then you compound that on top of the fact that you don't know how long you're going to be gone for or, you know, what you're going to encounter while you're out there.

HEGYI: It's all a lot. And while he welcomes these changes from the infrastructure bill, it might not be enough to keep him on the job next season, especially as a tight labor market nationwide has employers competing for labor.

BENSON: I kind of want to try carpentry. I'm thinking about taking a carpentry job.

HEGYI: It would keep him at home with a stable schedule.

BENSON: I don't know a ton about it, to be honest, but fingers crossed and hopefully not as much of an emotional toll.

HEGYI: Now that the infrastructure bill has been signed into law, federal agencies have to sort out exactly how the new pay and benefits will be applied. It's unclear when exactly wildland firefighters will start seeing bigger paychecks.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Missoula, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODEZENNE SONG, "SOUFFLE LE VENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.