According to the federal government, the brave men and woman you see racing to fight wildfires, or parachuting into the blazing woods are not ‘firefighters’, they are ‘forestry technicians’.

Montana Senator Steve Daines shook his head in disbelief when he heard that statement from Casey Judd, President of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association to kick off a roundtable discussion on firefighter issues at Neptune Aviation on Friday morning.

“Firefighters are called firefighters by the press, the public and politicians most often when they die,” said Judd. “They’re classified by the Office of Personnel Management as ‘forestry technicians’.”

One of the issues is that federal firefighters are leaving to work for private agencies.

Judd, along with several other representatives from various wildland firefighting units and hot shot crews, told Daines that the firefighters employed by the federal government receive less pay, a lot less pay than many privately funded organizations.

“There’s a state agency called ‘Cal Fire’ that makes a significant amount of money,” he said. “They’re working side by side with these federal firefighters, and the federal government is paying these Cal Fire folks three to five times more than their federal counterparts and doing the same job. We’ve been trying to get Congress to look at how our fire suppression dollars are being spent.”

Judd referenced another California entity that is starting its own fire department.

“We can do a whole lot better,” he said. “When you have agencies like Pacific Gas and Electric which has been linked to the deadly Camp Fire last summer in California, planning to start its own fire department, and with the California minimum wage going up to where it exceeds the income that these folks make, there’s no incentive to stay,” he said. “Why? When you have an agency whose fire program is led by people with no fire experience, that makes it doubly difficult.”

Daines also heard from smokejumpers who had been injured and because of the labyrinth of federal statutes regarding injuries and insurance coverage were fortunate to have recovered without losing everything.

Daines is working on several pieces of legislation to held deal with the problems discussed at the roundtable on Friday.


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