PHOENIX - The clock is ticking and money is running out on federal funding for wildland firefighters.
It was first approved two years ago, and if a decision is not made soon by Congress, wildland firefighters could see their pay cut in half.
Many firefighters are already threatening to quit if they haven’t already, and less federal firefighters means local towns and cities like Flagstaff will have to take on more responsibilities.
After working as a federal hotshot for 24 years, Mark Adams now works for the Flagstaff Fire Department. He says thousands of U.S. Forest Service firefighters could soon make the switch too.
"Minimum wage in Flagstaff is pushing somewhere around $18 an hour, yet federal firefighters' starting pay is somewhere around $15. It’s a simple math equation," Adams said. "Until they get this pay thing fixed, I don’t see any of that changing. People are going to continue to leave the federal wildland firefighter workforce and pursue better options for them and their families."
In 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law temporarily increased wildland firefighter’s base pay by $20,000, or 50%, whichever was smaller.
It also increased hourly pay from $13 to $15.
However, come October, it could all be reversed when the funds run out.
Jacob Nuttall with the U.S. Forest Service says the extra funds helped provide stability and allowed firefighters to work year-round. Not only fighting wildfires but helping with mitigation efforts to reduce their severity.
On top of other things.
"It will put them in circumstances where they will have to make life choices," Nutall said. "Also to be able to address the opportunities that we had to give people time off to address physical and mental health across the board. It's been fantastic over the last couple of years to be able to have those opportunities."
The money was always expected to run out, but federal officials expected Congress to find a permanent solution.
So far, Aruziba Senator Kyrsten Sinema has introduced a new bill with bipartisan support.
"My legislation continues the pay raise that I negotiated in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law two years ago. We ensure that wildland firefighters are paid an appropriate wage that recognizes the importance of their service and their work. We also extended wildland firefighter terms to be 12 months instead of part-time," Sinema said.
The U.S. Forest Service says if a decision is not made by Sept. 30, when the funds expire, they do have enough funding to stretch out salaries until the beginning of November.
That’s only about two more pay periods.
Sinema hopes her prevision will be included in the budget this week.