Firefighters from wild countries wereen alarming due to lack of affordable housing. Is anyone listening?
As the U.S. rushes into another brutal fire season, the country is facing a severe shortage of federal firefighters. Last month, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore told Congress that in some Western states crews are missing up to 50 percent because the agency is struggling to maintain and increase its ranks. This is a problem that he attributed to notoriously low salaries, which are pale compared to public and private jobs – and can make firefighters more expensive than housing in areas in charge of protection.
This is not surprising to Pete Dutchik, a veteran firefighter from wild areas in California and a member of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a committee that advocates for higher salaries and housing scholarships. During his two decades of service, he sometimes resorted to life outside his truck; with firefighters ’salaries of $ 11 an hour for most of his tenure, he said many of his colleagues also lived off their cars instead of paying rent for an apartment during the season.
Things have gotten worse for newer generations of firefighters as housing costs have risen while wages have remained stagnant. In recent years, Dutchick has overseen a team of military veterans in Northern California who have resorted to “beating up” apartments that have been infested with rodents.
“They come back after being on fire for 14 to 21 days, and rat and mouse droppings are everywhere in their beds,” Dutchick said. Some have instead decided to make a living from their cars; one number has since left the profession.
In California, those persistently low wages, raised to a minimum of $ 15 an hour last year alone, clash with a fire season that has been prolonged and intensified due to climate change and the affordable housing crisis.
For some of the roughly 15,000 – the Ministry of Agriculture and Homeland’s workforce and in charge of maintaining the federal state, the widening gap between their wages and housing prices – which has risen 12 per cent in the country since last year – was the last straw. According to a recent one BuzzFeed News The report lacks more than 1,000 wildfires in California.
One former seasonal wildlife firefighter, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation (Forest Service instructs wildlife firefighters not to speak to the media without agency approval and punished employees for doing so) Nexus Media News that housing instability was part of the reason he recently decided to retire.
Over the years, he slept in a tent in front of his office and pushed himself into a three-bedroom house with several colleagues. At one point, he rented an apartment for $ 1,200 a month on his own, but that cost almost half of his monthly salary at the basic rate, he said. Like Dutchick, he eventually decided to live outside his car during the fire season (out of season, he lived about 100 miles from where he was usually stationed). He had nowhere to store perishable food and struggled to maintain hygiene, especially during the hot summer months. He left the windows of his limousine open at night to cool off, becoming a target for mosquitoes.
“You don’t really think about those little details while you’re not there,” he said. Until, ‘What am I going to eat tonight?’ Or, “Shall I sleep tonight?”
“There will always be suffering associated with wildfire,” Dutchick said. The work itself is physically strenuous, often done for long hours in high heat, and sleep is reduced to a few hours “in the dirt” during intense work periods, he said. One report found that 10,000 U.S. Forest Service firefighters recorded an average of 2,500 injuries at work each year. It also takes a mental toll: according to one estimate, firefighters are 30 times more likely to die from suicide than the general U.S. population. Taking all that into account, housing should not be an additional stress, Dutchick said.
“Being able to get back into a routine when you’re not on fire, to recover and rest and have a sense of normalcy, I think is very important,” he said.
In April, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters posted invitations on Instagram and other content social media for wildlife firefighters to document substandard housing, including those owned by government agencies. (While federal agencies do not guarantee accommodation, it is provided to certain teams based on availability, and in some areas the crew is required to live in government-owned housing.)
In the answers to the balloons divided by Nexus Media News, firefighters described dilapidated housing conditions in detail, including faulty plumbing systems, contaminated water, mold, pest infestation, and even structural problems, with one firefighter complaining about the housing slipping off the foundation.
A lease document from the National Park Service classified a full-time firefighter as a “required tenant”, with rent taken directly from their salaries. Between June 2022 and December 2023, tenants ’rents will increase from about $ 550 to more than $ 800, despite the agency stating that the rental unit is in“ pretty / bad ”. The National Parks Service Public Relations Officer confirmed that such rents have risen sharply this year due to inflation
Other respondents shared experiences of living outside of their cars or workplaces, or camping due to a lack of affordable options. A firefighter in the Lake Tahoe region, the site of last year’s Caldor Fire, said he could not afford to rent the area with a salary of $ 16 an hour. “This year I will live off a passenger trailer parked at our base,” he wrote.
The situation of federal firefighters attracted attention last year when Tim Hart, a smoke jumper, died of his injuries after fighting a forest fire in New Mexico. His widow, Michelle Hart, was left with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills after the death of her husband.
In October, MP 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 benefits to wildlife firefighters deployed over 50 miles from home. The following month, Congress approved $ 600 million in federal firefighter salaries, earmarked for understaffed areas, as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act.
On June 21, after months of delay, the White House announced temporary wage increases, including retroactive wages from last fall, which will serve as a “bridge for two years as the administration works with Congress on long-term reforms.”
Asked about a specific housing issue, E. Wade Muehlhof, Deputy National Press Officer at 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 living can be too high in the communities we serve. ” When we received the e-mail, the representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to comment.
The team’s law, despite bipartisan support, is still before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. MP Neguse described the move of the bill in Congress as a “difficult battle” and acknowledged concerns about its adoption in the Senate.
As a reason for optimism, he pointed to the recent adoption of a law in the House that would make it easier for firefighters to access health benefits. Similar laws have been introduced but have not been adopted for more than 20 years. And that has yet to pass through the Senate.
“The Senate’s ability to pass key legislation such as Tim’s law has been hampered in recent years,” a Neguse spokesman said. Nexus Media News. “As many of my colleagues and I say, that’s where all good ideas die.”
HR2499 – Federal Law on Fire Justice 2022
Author: Colleen Hagerty
Re-published with Nexus Media.
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