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Ex-Montana wildland firefighter says shutdown could hurt firefighting force

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Posted at 5:35 PM, Sep 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-27 16:14:14-04

BILLINGS — Federal wildland firefighters are at the front lines of wildfires across the country and as Congress inches closer to a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, those firefighters may see their salaries slashed.

"I think wildland firefighters are probably the most underpaid workers in America right now. It’s probably the hardest work you can do. (I) loved it, but yeah, when you’re making $12-$15 an hour and you’re only working half the year, that’s not quite livable," said Austyn Skogas, former wildland firefighter from Red Lodge, on Tuesday.

On Nov. 15, 2021, Congress approved a bipartisan infrastructure law that provided a pay bump to firefighters of $20,000 or 50% of their paycheck. But that temporary increase is set to expire next week.

"That’s one of the biggest reasons that I don’t do it anymore. It was exhilarating, but you can’t live on that wage," added Skogas.

Unfortunately, the need is growing. In the last 10 years, an average of 61,376 wildfires have occurred per year in Montana with an average of 7.2 million acres burned. The entire country employs just over 11,000 wildland firefighters and soon there may far less.

Former firefighter Max Alonzo summed it up.

"They’re being forced out of their jobs at this point. When this money goes away, they’re going to lose half their paycheck," Alonzo, who fought fires in northern California, told CBS News.

"It’s thousands, I mean tens of thousands of dollars every fire. So, I don’t know if they try to cut back that way to have the little guy not making as much, since they have to pay for these airplanes to come in and help put it out," Skogas added.

Wildland firefighters often make far less than those on a city crew.  

Skogas mentioned that overtime is a big driver for the job but that it's far from consistent.

There’s hope that with bipartisan support, Congress will continue the pay bump, but a government shutdown puts that at risk.

"We’re going to be expecting these men and women to work for free, when they do get a paycheck, it’ll be half of what they were getting before," added Alonzo.

"I hope they can come to a solution, and I do think they do need to start paying all our wildland firefighters what they deserve. I’m not saying they need to make $200,000 a year working six months, but at least make it so they can go home and feed their family at the end of the day," said Skogas.