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Union-organized event pressures Congress to make good on a $4 billion promise

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wildland firefighters are pressuring Congress and the White House to make good on last year's promise to permanently boost their pay and benefits. The infrastructure law gave federal wildland firefighters a temporary $20,000 pay bump. That bump is set to run out in a few months. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Last year's bonus was a lifeline for wildland firefighters like Justin Brown. He's heading into his 14th year fighting fire on the Lassen National Forest in Northern California.

JUSTIN BROWN: It was just enough to where, you know, folks that were living in their cars could afford to get into an apartment with a couple of buddies and actually live like a human being.

SIEGLER: The bump in pay runs out by October, which typically is the peak of California's fire season. But climate change and suppression of natural fires has made it more year-round, and Brown says this is causing even more strain on an already stressed and overworked federal firefighting force.

BROWN: We've been running off of promises for years - what we consider, you know, dangling the carrot in front of us. And we've been kind of pushing along out of pride for the job.

SIEGLER: Brown spoke at a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on a windy morning yesterday, as lawmakers began debating President Biden's federal lands budget. It includes hundreds of millions of dollars for pay bumps and housing and mental health services. Some firefighters start out making about 15 bucks an hour, and most rely on overtime and hazard pay to get by. Here's California Congresswoman Katie Porter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE PORTER: It should not be a huge surprise that this labor force is understaffed when workers could make more as new employees at Costco than they can parachuting into forest fires.

SIEGLER: The boost in wildland firefighter pay has had some bipartisan support, though there were no Republicans at yesterday's union-organized press event. Firefighters like Justin Brown feel caught in the middle of a political budget battle over the debt ceiling. Far-right Republicans are pushing for deep spending cuts. But Brown warns of a mass exodus of the workforce as early as this summer.

BROWN: I mean, it's going to be a natural disaster. You're going to have huge fires going on everywhere and nobody that has the experience to try and put them out quickly.

SIEGLER: Towns will burn, Brown says, and more people may lose their lives.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL GRIMES' "THE AIR IN TIME") 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.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.