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Firefighters say they'll quit if their temporary pay boost isn't made permanent

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal wildland firefighters could soon see a big cut in their pay. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is racing to pass a fix, but some advocates say it is not enough. Nate Hegyi from the public radio podcast Outside/In reports.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: The smokejumper base in Missoula, Mont., is humming with activity. There's a plane gearing up for a practice parachute drop...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE RUMBLING)

HEGYI: ...And exhausted firefighters returning home after weeks on assignment at blazes in Idaho and Michigan. Isaac Karuzas is back for a few days before rolling out to New Mexico for another fire - business as usual, he says.

ISAAC KARUZAS: You could be on the road two to three weeks, away from your family, working 16-hour days. So there's a lot of time out there in the dirt and away from your family.

HEGYI: Karuzas, who's 47, has been a firefighter for more than two decades. He's also an officer in the union that represents U.S. Forest Service employees. He says the job has been good for the past couple of years ever since Congress passed a temporary pay bump for firefighters back in 2021 as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. It raised their base pay by 50% or $20,000 - whichever came first. Karuzas says the boost made his job a lot more palatable because it meant he didn't have to chase overtime as much during the off season to make ends meet.

KARUZAS: It allowed me not to leave the family in January and February. It allowed me to be home and take care of the kids a little more.

HEGYI: But that boost expires on September 30. Without it, the base pay for a new recruit would return to around $14 an hour. In a town like Missoula, you can make more money working in a restaurant. Karuzas' union estimates that the Forest Service could lose more than a third of its firefighters to higher-paying jobs if the pay boost expires.

KARUZAS: You need somebody to help fight those fires. And if we don't retain those people, you're going to have nobody to do it.

HEGYI: Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators from Western states introduced a bill to permanently raise the pay for firefighters. Even Montana Republican Steve Daines, a strong critic of the Biden administration and government spending, is a co-sponsor, as is his Democratic counterpart, Jon Tester.

JON TESTER: This is about recruitment. It's about retention. It's about paying folks for a very dangerous job so that they can have a fair salary.

HEGYI: The firefighters' union is supporting the bill. Members like Karuzas say it would still result in a pay cut for many firefighters compared to what they've been getting for the past two years. But it's more than what they were paid before then.

KARUZAS: This bill is going to give you less than we're getting right now, but it's a start.

HEGYI: While the bill would increase how much money they get working overtime, it would actually decrease their base pay.

RIVA DUNCAN: Everybody's going to take some kind of a pay cut, and the people at the higher levels are going to take the biggest pay cut.

HEGYI: Riva Duncan is with the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. She says the new bill means some experienced fire managers could see their base hourly wages drop by 25% compared to what they're currently getting. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that firefighters can make up that gap by working six weeks or more on active fires or prescribed burns. That way, they'd get extra overtime or hazard pay. But Duncan says that isn't a reliable source of income, especially for behind-the-scenes personnel who aren't actively on fires all the time. That said, she thinks the bill is better than nothing and that her group will keep lobbying Congress for more changes.

DUNCAN: Our hope is that people hang in there. Grassroots is going to continue to fight for other reforms that really didn't get included into this new proposal. So that's our hope. We're going to try and encourage people to hang in there a little longer.

HEGYI: Back at the smokejumper base in Missoula, Isaac Karuzas says he still supports the bill, but he'll also be gearing up to chase more overtime work this coming winter to make up any gaps.

KARUZAS: I've got six children, and I'm going to be away from them for a bit.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "WHAT THEY DO") 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.

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