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Little signs wildland firefighter hazard pay bill

Hagadone News Network | March 27, 2022 10:49 AM

It was a bill long overdue, according to a pair of District 1 legislators.

Thursday, House Bill 588 was signed into law by Gov. Brad Little, opening the door for wildland firefighters to receive hazard pay while working in dangerous conditions.

Championed by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, in the Idaho House of Representatives and Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, in the Idaho Senate, state officials said the bill underpins a movement to modernize the Idaho Department of Lands’ wildfire management program.

In late February, the House approved the bill 49-19-2, with all local representatives except Dixon, Rep. Paul Amador and Rep. Jim Addis of Coeur d'Alene voting against it. The Senate unanimously approved the bill, 35-0, on March 21.

"Wildland firefighters in Idaho do not currently receive hazard pay," Woodward said. "Many of the states surrounding us do compensate with hazard pay [and] federally employed wildland firefighters receive hazard pay."

In fact, when federal wildland firefighters work in Idaho on fires that the IDL is in charge of fighting, Woodward said the state reimburses the federal government — and includes hazard pay.

"The result is a revolving door of employees who come to work for the Department of Lands, earn their firefighter certifications, and move on to higher paying jobs," Woodward said.

The bill, which enjoyed broad support among Idaho’s policy makers, enables Idaho’s wildland firefighters to receive competitive compensation on par with their federal peers and other western states when working on an uncontrolled fire or at an active fire helibase, state officials said in a press release.

“It’s important we lead the way in recruiting and keeping well-trained wildland firefighters,” Little said. “It protects our communities, access to our forests, and our $2.4 billion forest products industry, a major driver for Idaho’s local and state economies.”

Without the hazard pay, after just two seasons — the typical timeframe to earn certification is two years - the state is seeing 40 percent turnover.

“Fighting wildland fire is inherently dangerous work,” Little said. “Since the consequence for making a mistake can be serious injury or death, retaining experienced personnel is crucial for keeping all firefighters safe.”

In a recent survey, 60% of IDL’s wildland firefighters who were not planning to say with the agency indicated they would stay if hazard pay was provided.

“Governor Little is leading Idaho to a new era of wildfire management,” said IDL Director Dustin Miller. “This bill, coupled with IDL's budget request, increases our firefighters' salary, fills a crucial part in modernizing fire program, and strengthens our ability to suppress wildfires quickly and safely.”

Miller said enacting the legislation was a team effort between the governor, Land Board, and Dixon and Woodward as well as industry stakeholders and other legislators.

“Providing hazard pay is a recognition of the threats our wildland firefighters face while working to suppress wildfires," he said. "It is also an important tool that helps IDL become the place where wildland firefighters want to make their permanent home, rather than a just a place to receive training before moving on.”

Washington Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters receive a starting salary of $2,892 a month, around $18.75 per hour. They receive an additional $2 per hour for emergency response duties. Idaho’s IDL wildland firefighters start at $12.55 per hour.

Firefighters work a base of 40 hours a week but are expected to be available to respond to a call anytime, any day of the week in fire danger season. They also can be sent to help in other states, away for over two weeks at a time.