McCormick warns Congress not to burn firefighters as wildfires scorch USA

“Wildland fire fighting is dangerous and difficult work in which firefighters jump out of airplanes, carry as much as 115 pounds of gear necessary to fight the fire, sometimes packing for miles, but they are about to suffer a pay cut because of congressional inaction,'” said New Jersey Democratic reformer Lisa McCormick.

There are currently 75 wildfires that have burned 625,387 acres in 14 states, according to McCormick, who is also an advocate for a higher minimum wage and serious action to stop global warming.

“Two new large fires were reported yesterday, in Mississippi and Texas. More than 18,250 wildland firefighters and support personnel are working to extinguish these deadly conflagrations,” said McCormick. “For decades, federal wildland firefighters have faced the challenges of longer, more severe fire years, while their pay has lagged behind their counterparts and left their families without a living wage.”

Decades of shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have turned fire “seasons” into fire “years,” with increasingly destructive fires stretching the limit of available firefighting resources, year after year.

Federal wildland firefighters working for the U.S. Department of the Interior were making an average starting wage of just $13 per hour when President Joe Biden took office in 2021. After Biden implemented a $15 minimum wage for firefighters in August 2021, Congress temporarily raised their salary by either 50 percent or $20,000, whichever was less but that pay hike is about to disappear.

In 2021, 11,300 firefighters received pay increases at a cost of $24.3 million but those temporary raises are about to expire. The starting salary for workers in these highly-skilled, rigorous and dangerous jobs would go back to $31,083 per year if legislation is not enacted in time.

In 2022, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $27,750, the median wage in the U.S. is $64,116 per household, and economists say an individual would need to make $68,499 a year after taxes to live comfortably.

Lisa McCormick with Wilma Campbell, Alex Lospinoso and Sylvia Turnage
Lisa McCormick with Wilma Campbell, Alex Lospinoso and Sylvia Turnage

“People who dedicate their lives to saving our lives ought to be able to afford to enjoy their lives instead of struggling to survive or relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 rental assistance,” said McCormick.

The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA) is legislation that would make permanent the funding for firefighter pay raises provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021.

The WFPPA also includes incident response pay to reflect the 24-hour, seven-day-per-week commitment that those firefighters endure while deployed to incidents such as fires, floods, and other catastrophes.

The legislation is sponsored by Senators Kyrsten Sinema, John Barrasso, Joe Manchin, Steve Daines, Alex Padilla, and Jon Tester, but neither Senator Cory Booker nor Senator Bob Menendez has shown any interest in passing the legislation, which is necessary to prevent pay cuts for firefighters who are suppressing some of the most horrific wilderness blazes ever seen.

“This is an important step towards ensuring this critical legislation is passed,” said National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) President Randy Erwin. “By now, Congress is aware that if this bill is not signed into law by September 30th, federal wildland firefighters will face a pay cut of 50% of their income, up to $20,000.”

“Should this happen, highly trained, professional wildland firefighters will leave the federal service in droves,” said Erwin. “As the wildfire crisis shows no signs of slowing down, this will be a disaster not only out West but across the country. Communities will burn and people will die.”

“The Maui fires were caused by powerlines toppled by strong winds combined with the consequences of climate change, which can happen here,” said McCormick. “Several major insurance companies have stopped writing new policies because of growing wildfire risks for California homeowners where there were over 5,000 wildfires in 2022, and already 4,337 fires this year, and which can happen here.”

McCormick asked residents to contact New Jersey’s federal lawmakers to urge them to pass this vital measure before the deadline.

No member of the New Jersey delegation is cosponsoring the version of the bill proposed in the US House of Representatives by Congressmen Joe Neguse, Gerry Connolly, Brian Fitzpatrick, Katie Porter, Josh Harder, Rep. Scott Franklin, and Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

“Hiring and retaining firefighters in increasingly long and complex fire years is a challenge that we take seriously.s,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a June 21 2022, press release. “The President’s budget and bipartisan infrastructure law provide a significant down payment towards investments in the stable, professional, and permanent wildland firefighting workforce we need to confront the wildfire crisis.”

“Our federal wildland firefighters are our primary line of defense against wildfires,” said Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, who said they should be able to keep the temporary pay increase included in the bipartisan infrastructure law.

“These courageous men and women work grueling hours in the most difficult of circumstances,” said Virginia Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly. “It is our absolute responsibility to provide them with fair compensation and fix this looming issue expeditiously.”

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