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Cal Fire troops battle the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California, July 2021.Noah Berger/AP

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This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Zack Bashoor was 19 years old when he joined the US Forest Service in northwestern Montana to fight wildfires. At the time, Bashoor saw firefighting as his career, but after three summers of running chainsaws, digging trenches around blazes and covering structures in protective wrap, he left to become a resource forester at a lumber mill. Many of his peers left firefighting, too, citing the industry’s toxic workforce culture and low compensation for a physically demanding job with a risk of injury or occasionally, death.

“There’s this conundrum where a lot of brilliant young people come in and they eventually end up leaving,” Bashoor said. “They find something better to do that isn’t as dangerous and pays a little more money. There were very limited paths to permanent employment.” 

But that might be changing, thanks to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which will raise wages for wildland firefighters and make some positions year-round. The $1.2 trillion legislation, which was signed into law by Biden Monday, includes $3.3 billion for wildfire management. While wildfire is a natural—and necessary—part of a healthy ecosystem, the more severe megafires of recent years are becoming increasingly common and destructive—fueled in part by climate change, as well as by fire suppression.

“It’s important for us to dump huge amounts of funding on this work and build the workforce to do it.” 

In addition to improving incentives for wildland firefighters, the legislation will work to make forests more resilient to fire and curb its damaging effects by allocating $500 million each to thinning projects, planning and conducting prescribed fires, developing and improving fuel breaks where fires can be stopped or lulled, and mapping and defending at-risk communities. It also funds projects such as fire science research, real-time monitoring equipment and restoration treatments on federal and tribal land with a “very high” wildfire potential.

“It is encouraging to see additional funding being made available for restoration and climate- and wildfire-adaptation of forest ecosystems where the exclusion of fire over the past century has contributed to the vulnerability of current conditions to drought and wildfire,” Keala Hagmann, a research ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Washington, wrote in an email. Hagmann said it was “particularly encouraging” to see language in the bill that supports thinning and timber harvesting in an “ecologically appropriate” manner in order to retain large trees, along with timelines for monitoring progress and effects. 

Large-scale funding is long overdue, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County and the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “It’s time to radically increase the scale of the work we’re doing,” she said. “We’ve never seen the investments we need to get ahead. It’s important for us to dump huge amounts of funding on this work and build the workforce to do it.” 

Support for that workforce is a key part of the infrastructure bill. Increasing pay for wildland firefighters is necessary to bolster retention and raise the morale of those employed by the federal government, who are often lured away by higher-paying state, local and private industry. Firefighter shortages have become common in recent years even as fire seasons grow longer and more destructive. Some workers struggle with homelessness and economic uncertainty.  

A rookie firefighter whose base pay was $28,000 would get a bump up to $42,000, not including overtime and hazard pay.

Many seasonal firefighters are classified as “forestry technicians” on paper, but the bill creates a new role—actually called “wildland firefighter”—that comes with a base pay raise of $20,000 or 50 percent of the starting salary, whichever is less. Wildfire Today reports that a rookie firefighter whose previous base pay was $28,000—before overtime and hazard pay, which significantly bump up earnings at the end of a season—would see their base pay jump to $42,000. That has real implications for entry-level firefighters and could give the Forest Service a better shot at retaining people like Bashoor. The bill also seeks to convert at least 1,000 firefighters of the roughly 15,000 federal wildland firefighters to year-round employees. In addition, it allocates money to establish mental health programs, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

It’s important to note that the infrastructure bill doesn’t put money into bank accounts today or tomorrow. What it does is authorize future Congresses to appropriate $3.3 billion for wildfire risk reduction efforts over several years. And appropriation doesn’t always equal implementation. Andy Stahl—a forester who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, an Oregon forestry trade association and numerous conservation groups and is now the executive director of the nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics—thinks it will be hard to hire people for the newly funded projects given current labor shortages. “I don’t know who these people are that Congress thinks are just beating down the doors saying, ‘This is the job I want,’ or are beating down the doors saying they want any job at all,” Stahl said. 

Other experts say the allocations are a good start but not enough, given the scale of 21st century megafires. Matt Wibbenmeyer, an environmental economist at the policy research organization Resources for the Future, said that while the infrastructure bill addresses some of the challenges facing fire management agencies, even more money is needed. For example, the Forest Service alone estimates it needs $5 billion to $6 billion a year over the next 10 years to reduce flammable forest fuels in high priority areas—more than the bill allocates for many years. And the clock is ticking, as climate change continues to prime more forests for ignitions with hotter, drier summers. “It’s a step in the right direction, but what we really need here is an order of magnitude increase in how much of this risk reduction we’re investing in,” Wibbenmeyer said. “I think we have to get used to the fact that climate change is going to be expensive.”

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President Biden Will Proceed With Infrastructure-Focused Trip To Pittsburgh Following Frick Park Bridge Collapse

By: KDKA-TV News Staff

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Pittsburgh is still on following the Forbes Avenue bridge collapse in Frick Park early this morning.

READ MORE: Frick Park Bridge Collapse: 10 Minor Injuries Reported, 3 People Taken To Hospital

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet, “The President will proceed with [the] trip planned for today and will stay in touch with officials on the ground about additional assistance we can provide.”

@POTUS is grateful to the first responders who rushed to assist the drivers who were on the bridge at the time. The President will proceed with trip planned for today and will stay in touch with officials on the ground about additional assistance we can provide.

— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) January 28, 2022

President Biden’s visit to the city was announced on Monday. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was number on his agenda for the visit.

His talking points for the trip are to include “strengthening the nation’s supply chains, revitalizing manufacturing and creating union jobs through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” according to a White House press release.

The president signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law in November.

READ MORE: President Joe Biden Visiting Pittsburgh Friday

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is also monitoring the developments following the bridge collapse, he said on Twitter.

“Closely monitoring the situation at Frick Park Bridge in Pittsburgh, and grateful for the first responders on scene. Our Department is in touch with @PennDOTNews and local authorities to offer our support. @USDOT stands ready to assist.”

Closely monitoring the situation at Frick Park Bridge in Pittsburgh, and grateful for the first responders on scene. Our Department is in touch with @PennDOTNews and local authorities to offer our support. @USDOT stands ready to assist.

— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) January 28, 2022

The bridge collapsed around 7 a.m. at Forbes and Braddock Avenues.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said the bridge over Hot Dog Dam Dog Park was inspected just last September.

“This Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is critically to Southwest Pennsylvania and the City of Pittsburgh,” Mayor Gainey said. “We know we have bridges that we need to take care of. We’re finding out now when the last inspection was and everything. But, with him coming today, to talk about this infrastructure bill, to discuss why this funding is so important, today is significant to that.”

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