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Missoula wildland firefighting company reacts to firefighter pay hike

Posted at 9:01 AM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 11:19:41-05

HELENA — Montana wildland firefighters will see a pay increase to $15.50 this upcoming season marking a $1.70 hike from the previous minimum wage.

Michael Wheelock — a seasoned smoke jumper and president of Missoula-based Grayback Forestry, which is a contract wildland firefighting company — says the pay increase is important and well-deserved.

“So, it is time to move it up. And the fire seasons are getting longer and longer, and it's taken a toll socially on families, you know, college students, you know, there's just a lot of burnout,” Wheelock said.

This pay increase comes right on the heels of the federal government’s minimum wage increase of $15 an hour for federal contractors. This also comes after federal firefighters received a pay increase last summer of $15 an hour.

Gov. Greg Gianforte and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) officials say the move is imperative as the need for reliable and solid help is necessary as fire seasons become longer and more intense.

A majority of Grayback’s workforce is annual workers and the company’s starting minimum wage is $19.64 plus benefits. But the pay raise can help retain the same seasonal workers and keep their business competitive.

“It takes so long to bring up a firefighter to a crew boss level, or firefighting, we have to provide incentives to stick around, and we've had a lot of people with us 20 to 40 years,” says Wheelock.

The hope is that the higher minimum wage will retain skilled workers and lessen burnout during next the next wildfire season.