PORTLAND, Ore. — As summer wildfire season approaches, there is growing concern over vacancies within Oregon’s federal firefighter workforce. Right now about 20% of its jobs are vacant. Many former employees have cited low pay, lack of benefits and poor working conditions as reasons for leaving.
“The shortage of permanent wildland fire positions, if not addressed, is on its way to becoming a four [alarm],” said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden while addressing U.S. Forest Service Chief, Randy Moore, last week.
Wyden asked Moore and other federal officials about equipping the state with more funding, not only to hire more federal firefighters, but to keep others from leaving. Right now starting wages run from $13 to $15 an hour.
“I was told last week a firefighter in Oregon with a small family and a modest sized roof over their head, it takes four paychecks to make a month's worth of rent,” said Wyden.
Moore indicated that he hoped things would change, possibly through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Congress passed in November. It included $600 million for increasing firefighters wages.
“We are going to use every tool through our legislation to pay our firefighters more because they are very deserving of it,” said Moore. “It's dirty, nasty, hard work and they do deserve better pay, they deserve better benefits.”
Many wildland firefighters who are sticking with the work, take lawmakers’ resolutions with a grain of salt.
“Things can be better for sure, but as far as any one politician going to bat for us, not to sound bitter or mean, but it's [going to] take years for it to trickle down where it needs to go,” said Matt Manago, a captain with the Prineville Hotshots. “We need young bodies to come out and get trained up and do this kind of work and nobody wants to come out.”
Manago said he prefers to focus on what he’s certain of: There will be fires. There will be structural threats and as long as there are, there will be a response.
“They're very good people. They're very nice people,” said Manago. “And they will drop anything they're doing in their life to come to your community and put up a heck of a fight.”
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