A firefighter working overnight battling the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. (Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe National Forest)
Firefighters have been working around the clock to battle one of the worst wildfire years ever in New Mexico with minimal pay that doesn’t always cover the bills. On Tuesday, the White House announced steps that the Biden-Harris administration is taking to increase wages and support systems for federal wildlife firefighters.
These steps include temporary pay increases from the $15 minimum approved by Congress last year, a program to address mental health needs and care, and new federal firefighter categorization that outlines career responsibilities and announces job opportunities — all funded with $600 million from the bipartisan infrastructure package. These improvements are supposed to roll out in the next few months.
When you have somebody who's willing to run in while everyone else is running out, that is a resource that needs to be cherished, valued and compensated for such.
– Dusty Warden
Dusty Warden, secretary-treasurer of the New Mexico Professional Fire Fighters Association, said firefighters have always stood strong to protect life and property.
“They work tirelessly throughout wildland season each and every year,” he said. “And the reality is that they’re undervalued and, most often, underpaid.”
Firefighters’ biweekly payments are supposed to increase by up to 50%, or just under $20,000, of their annual base salary, starting in the next few months and going through September 2023.
“When you have somebody who’s willing to run in while everyone else is running out, that is a resource that needs to be cherished, valued and compensated for such,” Warden said.
New Mexico firefighter Nickolas Palmer was injured while fighting the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire when about 2,500 gallons of water were dropped on him from a helicopter 100 feet up.
His injuries last month ended his firefighting season early and his ability to get paid for overtime hours, which Warden said many firefighters depend on. A GoFundMe went up to raise the money that Palmer would’ve made if he were still on the job. Federal workers’ compensation wouldn’t have cut it, according to the site.
“It is sad that we have to crowdsource a firefighter’s survival,” Warden said.
Don Armijo, president of the New Mexico State Fire Fighters’ Association, compared today’s wages to those made at fast-food jobs like McDonald’s, where entry-level employees can make $11 to $17 per hour. Having been a part of the association for about 20 years, serving positions ranging from firefighter to chief, he understands the long, strenuous hours fire personnel put in every day.
“It’d be nice to see them paid for what they’re worth,” he said.
Federal agencies are struggling to hire and retain firefighters, and Armijo attributed this partly to low pay. Warden, who’s been in fire emergency services for over 20 years, said he’s seen this in New Mexico, especially since they’re competing against private and municipal workplaces that offer better pay and more benefits while the federal government hasn’t been keeping up.
President Joe Biden’s statement Tuesday promised he “will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve.”
Warden said there hasn’t been enough attention from lawmakers on this issue and that “wildland firefighting is seen as a very unglamorous job.”
Mental health issues are a significant burden of the job, and Armijo said seeing people lose their homes and livestock can weigh heavily on firefighters. Plus, for people who have a love for the forest, it’s difficult to “see everything at a complete loss and completely burned down,” he said.
On top of this, Warden has also seen firefighters struggle being away from their family and homes for weeks to months at a time.
Without job-related support, like an employee assistance program with real resources, mental health can degrade, Warden said.
“It’s really easy to fall into a darkness with very few lifelines,” he said, “unless you have a system and an ecosystem and a culture that supports your well-being.”
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