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The firefighters helping with the Canadian wildfires are facing a looming pay cut

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration is sending wildland firefighters to Canada to help try to control the blazes that have sent smoke across much of the eastern United States. But those firefighters face a big pay cut if Congress doesn't act soon. Colorado Public Radio's Caitlyn Kim reports.

CAITLYN KIM, BYLINE: Lawmakers from the West are the first to tell you, there's no such thing as a wildfire season these days. It's become almost a yearlong problem. U.S. wildland firefighters are on the front lines. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso says, for years, wildland firefighters have done a lot for little in return.

JOHN BARRASSO: The only way to ensure that we have enough firefighters to defend our forests into the future is to ensure that they are fully supported and compensated.

KIM: At the end of 2021, wildland firefighters got a big pay boost from the bipartisan infrastructure law. But it's temporary and will go away September 30. Barrasso is one of nearly a dozen Western senators from both sides of the aisle pushing Congress to act. Here's Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto asking the U.S. Forest Service's Jaelith Hall-Rivera about the consequences of not acting at a recent hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO: If Congress doesn't pass a bill to extend the pay increase by the time these funds run out, what happens?

JAELITH HALL-RIVERA: Well, I think it would be absolutely catastrophic, senator. I stated earlier, and I'll restate it, our union is telling us they would expect 30- to 50% of our firefighting workforce would leave.

KIM: Hall-Rivera says the effects are already being felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALL-RIVERA: We are starting to see some resignations now. People are not going to wait until September 30.

KIM: Congress is considering numerous proposals to improve wildland firefighter compensation from retirement benefits to affordable housing. President Biden's budget request also includes better pay and benefits. Still, it might be a hard sell in the House, where some are pushing for less spending. Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado introduced a bill to make permanent a pay increase named in honor of Tim Hart, a smokejumper who died in 2021. Neguse says the money involved is an obstacle.

JOE NEGUSE: We've made the case that it shouldn't be, that at the end of the day, these are first responders. They are people who are sacrificing a lot to protect us and our families and our communities and our states.

KIM: And in a future with increasingly more catastrophic wildfires, Neguse and Western lawmakers argue it's tough work that deserves adequate pay and benefits in return. For NPR News, I'm Caitlyn Kim. 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.

Caitlyn Kim