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As wildfires rage, lawmaker proposes legislation to raise firefighter pay

The bill would also provide funding for health care, paid leave, retirement benefits and housing assistance.
Image: New Wildfire Spreads Rapidly In Riverside County
A firefighter stands with flames in the background from the Calimesa Fire in San Timoteo Canyon, near Calimesa, Calif., on Oct. 6, 2005.David McNew / Getty Images file

As wildfire seasons grow longer and more deadly, Congress is taking steps to ease the immense pressure on federal firefighters battling the blazes.

"The reality is these wildfires are not going away. They are going to get worse, and it is up to us to take the steps now to try and mitigate the harm and the damage in the future and to compensate and protect those firefighters who are being asked to do more and more with each passing year," said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., the co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus.

Neguse is proposing a bill to address some of those issues by raising federal firefighters' pay to at least $20 an hour, ensuring health care and increasing paid leave and retirement benefits. The bill, which is set to be introduced Tuesday, also includes funding for housing assistance and tuition assistance.

The bill doesn't include provisions for volunteers, who are the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. but are generally under local and state jurisdiction.

The legislation, the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, is named for smokejumper Tim Hart, 36, of Cody, Wyoming, who died this year parachuting into a fire in New Mexico.

The bill also puts a large emphasis on mental health benefits. More firefighters have died by suicide in the last decade than ever before, according to data tracked by Jeff Dill, a longtime firefighter and behavior health administrator for Las Vegas Fire and Rescue. Dill's group, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, estimates that more than 1,668 firefighters died by suicide in that period. The number is likely to be higher, he said, because it doesn't include the volunteer firefighters.

Wildland firefighters watch and take video with their cellphones as a plane drops fire retardant on Harlow Ridge above the Lick Creek Fire, southwest of Asotin, Wash., on July 12.Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune via AP file

More than 47,000 wildfires have burned across the U.S. this year alone, destroying nearly 6.5 million acres — or 15.5 acres burned every minute, the Fire Weather and Avalanche Center estimates. Wildfires are still raging across the West; last year's fires caused billions of dollars in damage and led to dozens of deaths.

"The things that we see and we deal with on a daily basis at work are things that, as a human being, you should never see," said Jen Ward, a firefighter-paramedic with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue outside Portland, Oregon.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. It doesn't have partners in the Senate.