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Summer forest fires are on our doorstep – Need more firefighters

Sen. Ron Wyden

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden this week joined colleagues from both parties in urging federal officials to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters in Oregon and nationwide that would address urgent staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce.

“As the 2022 fire season begins, we urge you to take necessary steps to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja. “By using existing authority to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters, we can directly address the recruitment and retention crisis, and ensure that the pending “wildland firefighter” occupational series reflects the professional capabilities of our wildland firefighters.” 

The lawmakers’ May 10 letter noted how years of low pay and other issues have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce to the point that fire officials last year could not fill an unprecedented 1,800 interagency requests for wildland firefighting crews, and more than 1,900 requests for fire engines.

“This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable,” they wrote.“The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must use its authority to stop further attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce. OPM has the authority for special pay rates to address staffing problems caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, the remoteness of the area or location involved, the undesirability of the working conditions or nature of the work involved, and any other circumstances OPM considers appropriate. All these criteria appear applicable in this case.”

In addition to Wyden, other senators signing the bipartisan letter led by U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY), Jon Tester (D-MT), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Alex Padilla (D-CA), James E. Risch (R-ID), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Jackie Rosen (D-NV), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). Thirteen House lawmakers also signed the letter.

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