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Natural Resources & Energy

A bill that's been introduced to Congress advocates for federal firefighters and hits close to Cody

Firefighters who work on wildland fires and prescribed burns (shown here) can be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.
Firefighters who work on wildland fires and prescribed burns (shown here) can be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.

Cody resident Michelle Hart knows first hand the issues wildland firefighters face. Her husband, Tim, was a specially trained wildland firefighter who provided first responses on remote wildland fires—also known as a smokejumper. He died in June from injuries he sustained while fighting a fire in New Mexico.

Right after his passing, Michelle worked with the nonprofit Grassroots Wildland Firefighters to help raise awareness on reforms.

Together they helped draft the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. It was introduced to the U.S. Congress on October 19 by representative Joe Neguse (D-Co). Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) is a co-sponsor.

The act includes many reforms for federal firefighters. One is classifying smokejumpers as emergency responders rather than forestry technicians. Hart said it is important to call them what they are: firefighters. But that classification is important for other reasons.

"If you were classified as an emergency responder then you would fall in as a firefighter, you would fall into potentially different benefits that the federal government provides to emergency responders," said Hart.

Another reform, which has garnered national attention this past year is better pay. Wildland firefighters can be paid as little as $14 an hour. Hart said the Tim Hart Act would raise that to $20 an hour.

"I would say that leads very well right into that third issue, which is really around mental health," she said. "It's not studied very well, but you talk to any wildland firefighter and they can tell you more than one person that they've lost to suicide, probably in the last few years."

Hart said this really ties into the nature of the job.

"If you talk to a lot of federal wildland firefighters, they feel that they have to work as much as humanly possible over the summer in order to get overtime, in order to offset when they're laid off in the winter and aren't getting an income," said Hart. "And so they're really incentivized to overwork and overstress themselves because of that low base pay and to make up for that, with as much overtime as they can get."

The act includes other reforms, including addressing the issue of a lot of homeless firefighters while they are fighting fires. Federal firefighters have to travel a lot and may even have to leave their home state for weeks at a time.

Hart and others will testify in front of Congress next week.

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