By Jarrett Renshaw
(Reuters) – US President Joe Biden will announce wage increases and bonuses for federal firefighters on Wednesday ahead of a meeting with the governors of western states that could face a record number of wildfires this year due to the drought. and high temperatures.
Wednesday’s virtual meeting, which will also include cabinet officials, is designed to show that the White House is dealing with wildfires, which have increased by at least 100 incidents each year since 2015, are a national emergency like hurricanes, he said. a senior administration official. he said Tuesday.
This year’s fire season could surpass last year’s worst on record, experts say. The threat comes as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management face staff shortages accelerated by low salaries and competition from state and local fire departments.
The U.S. government employs about 15,000 firefighters to fight wildfires on federal lands, including thousands of seasonal workers who start at about $ 13 an hour and rely on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet. .
Biden recently called it a “ridiculously low salary.” He plans to announce that no federal firefighter will make less than $ 15 an hour, the official said.
“As the president said last week, it is ridiculous that federal firefighters are being paid $ 13 an hour, and we are going to change that,” said a senior administration official. “Firefighters must be fairly paid for the hard and risky work they are willing to do.”
The White House will also announce that they will seek to convert seasonal firefighting jobs to full time as demands have increased, and will pay retention bonuses. More specific details will be announced on Wednesday, such as when and where the money is coming from.
As climate change makes regions like the western US states more arid, wildfires have become more frequent and fierce.
This year’s wildfire season may serve as an ominous backdrop as Biden and Democrats seek billions of dollars from Congress to curb climate change, offering real-time examples of the need for increased investment from taxpayers.
It will also put pressure on the large number of lawmakers from both parties in western states like California, Arizona and New Mexico to ditch partisan politics and pay for more firefighters and greater mitigation efforts.
Jonathan Golden, an advisor to the Grassroots Wildlife Firefighters organization, which advocated for seasonal firefighters, predicts that this fire season will be a grim call to action.
“Unfortunately, we are facing a tragedy, and it is not going to be a tragedy in the remote corners of the country as more and more innocent people are inadvertently caught in the path of a wildfire and unable to escape,” Golden said. “So, unfortunately, it will be the tragic loss of life that will bring this into focus. And that’s really the shame of it all.”
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