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Wyden urges action on wildland firefighter pay increase

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden stands at a podium outside and gestures with his hand as he gives a speech. A group of state fire officials stand behind him.
Noah Camuso
JPR News
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden visited Medford on Tuesday to discuss the 2022 fire season.

A challenging fire season this year could be even harder with a firefighter shortage and a delayed pay raise.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden visited Southern Oregon Tuesday to get an update on the fire season this year from state fire officials.

Wyden has been pressuring the Biden administration to speed up a promised pay increase for wildland firefighters.

Congress approved $600 million in the bipartisan infrastructure law to raise firefighter salaries by up to $20,000 more per year, but implementing that raise is overdue by more than a month.

Wyden says the continued wildland firefighter shortage could have serious consequences this fire season.

"What happens if everybody is gonna need firefighters and doesn’t have somebody to borrow from?" he asks.

During his meeting with state officials, Wyden says he learned the combination of drought conditions and late rainfall this year means there’s more fuel to burn. That could lead to more wildfires across the region.

Wyden says agencies have fewer firefighters to share with other states as they deal with the ongoing worker shortage.

“We are looking at a fire challenge where all of these Western states are simultaneously gonna need very large numbers of firefighters," Wyden says.

Wyden says Oregon agencies are seeing up to 20% vacancy rates for firefighting positions, with some firefighters leaving because they’re not getting paid enough.

In Addition, firefighting agencies are looking to transition away from seasonal hiring and create more permanent positions. These firefighters are needed to help with fuel reduction efforts in the off-season.

Wyden is hoping to get more answers for the delay in wage increases from the federal Office of Personnel Management in the coming days.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.