Bejamin Weiss

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal wildland firefighters came one step closer to a permanent pay boost Wednesday, as lawmakers on the Senate’s homeland security panel approved a measure to canonize a temporary salary hike scheduled to end in the coming months.

As wildfires increase in frequency, the demand for firefighters has similarly spiked across the country. Despite that, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department have warned that the existing workforce is drastically overworked and underpaid.

Lawmakers attempted to relieve some of that pressure in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included a temporary provision raising wildland firefighter salaries by 50%, or as much as $20,000. That pay increase, which has so far doled out more than $381 million to firefighters, is scheduled to lapse in September. Officials worry the program’s end could herald a mass exodus of wildfire suppression experts.

Now, Congress is attempting to head off such a possibility. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would not only cement the 2021 salary hike but also include daily pay supplements for wildland firefighters battling long-duration blazes or those assigned to preventative work in high-risk areas.

The bipartisan measure, sponsored by Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, cleared the Democrat-controlled homeland security panel on a 10-1 vote. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, the committee’s ranking member, was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill.

During debate, Paul sought to stake out a position of fiscal responsibility, arguing that while he supported raising salaries for wildland firefighters, he was wary about what he saw as no-strings-attached federal spending.

“It’s that kind of empty, vacant sort of thinking that has caused us to be $31 trillion in debt,” Paul said, arguing that the government needed to set guardrails on how much it was willing to spend. “Who can be against increasing the wildland firefighter salary? Why don’t we increase their salary 100%? What are the limits?”

Paul offered an amendment that would have sunset Sinema’s proposed measure after two years, contending that it would provide an opportunity for Congress to assess how well the program was working.

“It isn’t just that we’d say, ‘oh, in two years, we’re going to take away their pay increase,’” Paul said of wildland firefighters. “It could be that, in two years, we find out their pay increase wasn’t enough.”

Sinema pushed back, arguing that sunsetting her measure would only delay the pay crisis.

“The two-year sunset simply puts us right back into this very position two years from now,” the Arizona Independent said. “We’re not asking for a pay raise; we’re just asking to maintain their salaries so they don’t lose half of their income right as fire season is occurring.”

Paul’s amendment later failed on a 4-11 vote.

Lawmakers have already heard from wildland firefighters and federal officials about the need to maintain the 2021 salary increase. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy chief of state, private and tribal forestry at the Forest Service, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a June hearing that payment is the government’s largest barrier to hiring and retaining firefighters.

“The only way that we’re going to attract people to this challenging and hazardous work is to pay them fairly,” Hall-Rivera said at the time. Federal wages for wildland firefighters have not kept pace with state and private organizations, she added.

The Biden administration has also voiced its support for cementing the infrastructure bill’s $20,000 pay hike. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a June memo to federal agencies that the White House’s proposed 2024 budget would provide permanent pay and benefits support for wildland firefighters and urged Congress to take further action.

The Forest Service has requested a $180 million line item in its 2024 budget request to fund permanent pay increases for its wildland firefighting workforce.

Meanwhile, if the infrastructure bill’s temporary pay provision is allowed to expire as scheduled on Sep. 30, wages for wildland firefighters would return to their previous levels — for some that could be as low as $15 an hour.

As climate change brings record high temperatures and dry conditions, wildfires are becoming more frequent in the U.S. The Interior Department has said that more than 7.5 million acres of land were burned by 69,000 wildfires in 2022 alone.

In June, wildfires blazing in Canada brought the issue to the steps of Capitol Hill, as smoke from the fires traveled down the East Coast, enveloping Washington in an orange haze and forcing residents inside. Air pollution from the Canadian wildfires has prompted northeastern states such as New York and New Jersey to issue air quality alerts in recent weeks.