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IDL asks Legislature to allow hazard pay for its wildland firefighters

Posted at 5:55 AM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 10:41:34-05

BOISE, Idaho — Yet another state agency is facing staffing challenges and drought conditions aren't helping.

Earlier this month we told you about the possibility of a multi-year drought in Idaho, which could increase wildfire risks.

Now, the Idaho Department of Lands is hoping a new bill will help address staffing challenges on the firelines.

IDL manages the state's endowment land, which makes money for Idaho's public schools and other beneficiaries. Managing this land includes fighting wildfires on private, state and federal land. The department is asking for help from the state to make sure they're equipped to handle this.

"Last fire season by all metrics was a banner year. It'll be a fire season at least in Idaho that'll be talked about for years to come," Joshua Harvey, with the IDL Fire Bureau, said.

Fighting a fire means working in dangerous conditions.

"I've personally witnessed my own friends and myself. I've been hit in the kneecap by rocks, watched other individuals, their hard hat has taken the impact from rocks rolling down the hills," Harvey said.

That's why IDL said it's important to provide hazard pay.

If passed, House bill 588 would allow IDL to pay its wildland firefighters hazard pay when they're working in an uncontrolled fire or at an active fire helibase.

"Many times there will be firefighters from the federal government agencies and from other states working side by side with our men and women. In many cases those federal firefighters and those from other states receive hazard pay while our firefighters do not," Scott Phillips, IDL's Policy and Communications Chief said.

Phillips also said when IDL wildland firefighters are sent to other states that provide hazard pay to assist with a wildfire, they're not able to accept the hazard pay under current Idaho law.

They say the change would help the department recruit and retain experienced firefighters.

"Unfortunately with market conditions as you can imagine, it's difficult to compete in terms of compensation when we hire those folks," Phillips said. "Right now with the roughly 250 folks we hire every year, after two seasons, 40% of those people do not return to work for idl. Fighting fires is very dangerous and when things go bad they go bad quickly and the difference between life and death comes down to experience."

IDL said 60% of the firefighters who don't plan to return next season, would come back if they got hazard pay.

"In the long run it actually saves the state taxpayers money by retaining those quality individuals that we've invested time, we've invested training into. And they develop leadership qualities through that time and training that helps to keep the younger firefighters safe," Harvey said.

The bill passed the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee Monday and will be considered by the full House in the coming days.