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Business and Labor

Advocates Cautiously Laud Bill To Improve Working Conditions for Wildland Firefighters

Firefighters who work on wildland fires and prescribed burns (shown here) can be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.
Firefighters who work on wildland fires and prescribed burns (shown here) can be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.

As wildfire seasons become increasingly intense, more focus is being put on the difficult working conditions wildland firefighters deal with. The U.S. Senate has introduced legislation to help, but some firefighters and their advocates say it might not be enough.

Wildland firefighting involves being away from home for weeks at a time, often in unsafe conditions with low pay. The Senate is developing an Energy Infrastructure Act that would moderate hours and increase pay for wildland firefighters.

Riva Duncan, a member of the group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, says the efforts are a good start to more comprehensive progress.

“We’ve got good momentum," said Duncan. "We believe if this bill becomes law, it might be the catalyst to having then other legislation come through to fill in the gaps that aren’t quite filled with this one.”

Duncan says mental health resources for firefighters need to be improved in future legislation, because firefighters often leave families at home and experience trauma in the field.

Although this wildfire season has intensified the need for firefighters, Duncan says current working conditions have led to firefighters leaving the industry in swarms.

She hopes this new bill might curb the exodus.

“You know, if this gets through to the president’s desk and he signs it, it gives a lot of wildland firefighters hope," she said. "Maybe enough to make the people who are thinking about quitting to stay in a little bit longer to see these reforms come true.”

Duncan says while she was on a fire early in the year when wildfires were sparse, resources were already stretched thin.