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Opinion: Boebert vapes as Colorado high country could burn without firefighter pay

September 26, 2023, 7:17 pm
The ruins of the Marshall Fire near Boulder on Dec. 31, 2021.

Fall is one of the most magical times to visit and live in the Colorado high country, especially as human carbon emissions causing climate change continue to scorch lower-elevation parts of the country. But the fall colors mask a harsh reality in recent dry weeks: All that colorful foliage from a rainy summer is super-crispy dry and ready to burn.

All of which makes the impending expiration of temporary pay increases for federal wildland firefighters and the looming government shutdown due to a dysfunctional Congress all the more dire for emergency responders and mountain residents.

Just because the hottest days of summer are behind us, this is not the time to be messing around with firefighter pay. Remember, the Marshall Fire near Boulder was started by high winds ahead of the winter’s first snowfall on Dec. 30, 2021. It wound up destroying 1,084 homes in Louisville and Superior before the snow put the flames out.

The campaign of Adam Frisch, the Aspen Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the 2024 election, took this shot at the Silt Republican on Tuesday: “On September 30 [Saturday], a raise for federal wildland firefighters that was passed under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is set to expire, threatening to reduce pay by up to 50% for the firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect our communities from wildfires and potentially decimating the firefighting corps that keeps Coloradans safe. Because of extremists in Congress like Boebert, legislation that solidified critical pay raises for recruiting and retaining firefighters is stalled in Congress.”

Frisch in 2022 lost to Boebert by just 546 votes, and said he would have voted for climate change legislation Boebert called “Green New Deal crap.”

MAGA Republicans are likely to cause yet another federal government shutdown starting Saturday as they battle their own party to extract budget cuts to a wide range of federal programs — cuts far beyond what House Speaker Kevin McCarthy got his party to agree to with President Joe Biden earlier this year. Basically, extremists in the House are going back on their own votes in favor of that debt-ceiling deal in May.

Boebert, who on Tuesday railed against food assistance for poor people, says she’s working to avoid a shutdown that maybe (hopefully) will just last a couple of weeks, but her constituents in Durango weren’t buying it over the weekend. Neither is Frisch, who issued this statement:

“Boebert’s extreme agenda is failing families and businesses in Southern and Western Colorado,” Frisch said. “There is real work to be done in Congress this week to prevent a government shutdown that harms both civilians and the military, ensure our wildland firefighters are paid fairly, and protect our local farmers. Instead of doing this work, Boebert has been busy making headlines for the wrong reasons and lying to her constituents. Boebert says her failure to pass any legislation during her time in Congress is because her party has been in the minority. What’s her excuse now?”

Boebert says backlash over her ejection from a Denver theater for vaping, loudly singing and making out with her date is a “distraction” as the Republican-controlled House tries to cobble together an 11th-hour spending deal after months of doing nothing.

Here’s a press release from Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on a letter he and 12 other senators sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urging permanent funding for wildland firefighter pay increases:

Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet led twelve of his Senate colleagues to call on U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to advance permanent, comprehensive pay reform for the country’s wildland firefighters as temporary pay increases are set to end. On Friday in Grand Junction, CO, Bennet heard from federal wildland firefighters about the difficulties they face and the need for a long-term solution to provide wildland firefighters with the pay and benefits they deserve.

“Wildland firefighters work incredibly dangerous jobs to keep Americans safe, but they’re not getting paid what they should get paid,” said Bennet. “As we face a hotter and drier future, wildfires are not going to stop and fire seasons will only get longer – and if Congress fails to act soon, we could lose the expertise of a generation or more of federal wildland firefighters. We must pass legislation immediately to ensure our wildland firefighters receive the pay and benefits they deserve.”

Short-term pay increases for over 22,000 federal firefighters will run out this week unless Congress takes action. In their letter, the senators note the increasing threat posed by wildfires in the U.S. and issues that have contributed to firefighter recruitment and retention challenges in recent years – including low pay, unaffordable housing, and strain on their mental health. They conclude by urging Schumer to move forward on permanent, comprehensive pay reform in line with the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act.

“Firefighters deserve fair pay, support for their mental and physical health, and time to recover from their dangerous work. In a future with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, Congress cannot delay and deny this critical workforce’s needs,” wrote the senators. 

In addition to Bennet, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also signed the letter.

Bennet has advocated to improve firefighter pay and benefits as Colorado and the West face historic threats from wildfire. In May, Bennet and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (Tim’s Act) to increase base and deployment pay and provide other benefits such as paid rest leave, housing, and mental health care. In June, Bennet led a bipartisan group of Western senators calling on Congress to take action on a solution for firefighter pay as the fire season began across the West. Last year, Bennet welcomed the administration’s announcement that they would use $600 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase pay and provide additional support for wildland firefighters following Bennet’s call to swiftly implement these provisions. In October 2020, Bennet urged former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reform pay, job stability, and benefits for federal wildfire personnel.

The text of the letter is available HERE and below.

Dear Leader Schumer:

We write to underscore the urgent need to authorize and fund a permanent solution to increase wildland firefighter recruitment and retention and prevent a workforce exodus. Bipartisan, bicameral efforts during the 117th Congress – including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Public Law 117–58) – provided temporary relief to the federal wildland firefighter workforce through a short-term pay increase of $20,000 or 50 percent of their base salary (whichever is less). This relief is running out for the over 14,893 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and 5,350 Department of the Interior (DOI) firefighters who received temporary raises. 

Climate change leads to larger, more frequent, and increasingly destructive wildfires across the nation and our planet. As we all witnessed earlier this year, these fires’ smoke can travel thousands of miles and from places unfamiliar with the devastation these fires leave in their wake. As a result, wildland firefighters traveled to Eastern Canada to assist with such efforts as smoke degraded air quality in America. Consequently, this is no longer a uniquely Western problem. Wildland firefighters are on the front lines of these crises, protecting Americans, their communities, and our neighboring countries. Despite their critical work, the federal government has not provided adequate compensation or benefits to wildland firefighters for decades. Difficulties in recruitment and retention have stretched the current wildland firefighter workforce to its limits.

Wildland firefighters are an integral part of the nation’s first responder force for large scale disasters including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and acts of terrorism. Wildland firefighters serve as the front-line fire departments in many urban areas located within national forests and federal lands. They respond to road accidents, house fires, and other urban emergencies like other fire departments and are integrated in mutual response agreements with state and local fire departments across the country, so it is a matter of national security to invest in this workforce.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the total acres burned by wildfire has doubled in the last 20 years, with over 7.5 million acres burned in 2022 alone. Between 2017 and 2021, wildfires destroyed over 12,000 homes, businesses, and other structures on average annually, more than triple the preceding five-year period. These fires are exceptionally expensive, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating wildfires costs during the past five years reached nearly $67 billion. Climate data shows that wildfire season has increased by 80 days since the 1970s and climate projections show the wildfire season will continue to last longer.

A recent Government Accountability Office report found that low pay, poor work-life balance, and mental health challenges, among other factors, limit federal wildland firefighter recruitment and retention. Firefighters deserve fair pay, support for their mental and physical health, and time to recover from their dangerous work. In a future with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, Congress cannot delay and deny this critical workforce’s needs.

We are grateful for the bravery of our wildland firefighters. We remain committed to delivering permanent, comprehensive pay reform for our wildland firefighters by the end of this fiscal year, in line with the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the specific pay provisions included in the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (S. 2272) which include the key components of the Administration’s proposal. We urge an immediate vote to advance permanent solutions to ensure they get the pay and benefits they deserve.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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