Wildland firefighters wereto sound the alarm about the lack of affordable housing. does anyone listen?
As the US rushes into another brutal forest fire season, the country faces a severe shortage of federal firefighters. Last month, US Forest Service chief Randy Moore told Congress that some Western states lacked 50 percent of the crew as the agency struggled to maintain and expand its ranks. It is a problem he attributed to the notoriously low wages, which fade compared to public and private jobs – and can auction off firefighters living in the areas they are supposed to protect.
Not surprisingly, Pete Dutchick, a California wild fire veteran and member of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters committee who advocates higher wages and housing scholarships. During his two decades of service, he sometimes resorted to life from his truck; With firefighters starting at $ 11 an hour during much of his term, he said many of his colleagues also lived off their cars instead of paying rent for an apartment for the season.
For newer generations of firefighters, the situation has worsened as housing costs have risen while wages have remained stagnant. In recent years, Dutchick has overseen a crew of military veterans in Northern California who have resorted to “beaten” rodent-infested housing.
“They’re on fire after 14 to 21 days, and there’s rat and mouse feces everywhere in their beds,” Dutchick said. Some eventually decided to live off their cars; many have since left the profession.
In California, these persistently low wages, which have risen to a minimum of $ 15 an hour in the last year alone, are colliding with a period of fires that have lengthened and intensified due to climate change and the affordable housing crisis.
For some of these roughly 15,000 people employed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture to maintain federal lands, the widening gap between their wages and housing prices – which have risen 12 percent in the state since last year – is the last straw. According to a recent one BuzzFeed News reports that more than 1,000 wild firefighters are missing in California.
One former seasonal savage firefighter who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution (the Forest Service ordered wilderness firefighters not to speak to the media without the agency’s consent and punished employees for it). Nexus Media News that housing instability was one of the reasons why he recently decided to retire.
Over the years, he slept in a tent in front of his service station and crammed himself with several co-workers in a three-bedroom house. At one point, he rented an apartment for $ 1,200 a month, but it cost almost half of his basic monthly salary, he said. Like Dutchick, he eventually decided to live outside his car during the fires (in the off-season, he lived about 100 miles from where he was usually located). He had nowhere to store perishable food and tried to maintain hygiene, especially in the hot summer months. He left the windows of his sedan open at night to stay cool and became the target of mosquitoes.
“You don’t think about those little details until you’re there,” he said. “Until it’s like, ‘What am I going to eat tonight?’ Or, ‘Will I sleep tonight?’ ”
“There will always be suffering in a wilderness fire,” Dutchick said. The work itself is physically exhausting, often performed for long hours in the heat, and sleep is postponed for several hours “in the dirt,” he said. One report found that 10,000 US Forest Service firefighters experienced an average of 2,500 accidents each year. It also takes a mental toll: According to one estimate, savage firefighters are 30 times more likely to die by suicide than the general US population. When that is taken into account, housing should not be another stressor, Dutchick said.
“I think it’s so important to be able to get back into the routine when you’re not burning, to recover, to relax, and to have a little normal life,” he said.
In April, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters published calls for Instagram and more social media for forest firefighters to document non-compliant accommodation facilities, including those owned by government agencies. (Although federal agencies do not guarantee accommodation, it is provided to certain crews upon availability and in some areas crews must live in government housing.)
In responses to labels shared with Nexus Media News, firefighters described the dilapidated housing conditions in detail, including broken water systems, contaminated water, mold, pests and even structural problems, with one firefighter complaining about the sliding housing.
One lease from the National Park Service classified the full-time forest firefighter as a “mandatory user”, with the rent being collected directly from their payments. Between June 2022 and December 2023, tenants plan to increase rents from approximately $ 550 to more than $ 800, despite the agency’s listing being “decent / bad” by the agency. The National Park Service’s public affairs officer confirmed that such leases had risen sharply this year due to inflation
Other respondents shared their experiences of living outside a car or workstation or camping due to a lack of available options. A firefighter in the Lake Tahoe area, the site of last year’s Caldor fire, said he could not afford to rent the area for $ 16 an hour. “This year I will live off a travel trailer parked at our base,” he wrote.
The suffering of federal firefighters attracted some attention last year when Tim Hart, a smoke jumper, died as a result of injuries after fighting a forest fire in New Mexico. His widow, Michelle Hart, had tens of thousands of dollars left in her medical bills after her husband’s death.
In October, MEP Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) introduced the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, which would increase wages and offer housing allowances to wildfighters deployed more than 50 miles from home. The following month, Congress passed $ 600 million as part of the Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act to pay federal firefighters for deprived areas.
On June 21, after months of delays, the White House announced a temporary wage increase, including rebates, since last fall, which would serve as a “bridge for two years as the administration works with Congress on longer-term reforms.”
When asked specifically about housing, E. Wade Muehlhof, deputy national spokesman for the Forest Service, said Nexus Media News“The Forest Service has a team that deals with long-term housing issues for all our employees. We know that the cost of living and housing can be unbearable in the communities we serve. ”After receiving an e-mail, a Interior Ministry official declined to comment.
The Tim’s Act, despite the support of both parties, still sits before the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. MP Negus described the move forward in Congress as a “challenging battle” and acknowledged concerns about its approval in the Senate.
He pointed to the recent passage of a law in the Chamber of Deputies, which would make it easier for firefighters to access health benefits. Similar legislation has been in place but not adopted for more than 20 years. It also has to go through the Senate.
“The Senate’s ability to adopt key legislation, such as Tim’s law, has been curtailed in recent years,” said Negus. Nexus Media News. “As many of my colleagues and I say, this is where all good ideas die.”
HR2499 – Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2022
By Colleen Hagerty
Republished from Nexus Media.
Check out our brand new Guide for e-bikes. If you are curious about electric bicycles, this is the best place to start your journey through e-mobility!
Do you appreciate the originality and news of CleanTechnica? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica member, supporter, technician or ambassador – or patron of Patreon.