Auburn man claims federal firefighters underpaid, underappreciated
As a seasonal wildland firefighter for the United States Forest Service, Lindon Pronto, an Auburn resident, is no stranger to missions.
But as of right now, Pronto is on a mission of a different kind.
Pronto has embraced a cause to raise awareness relating to the lack of pay, benefits and healthcare coverage offered to federal firefighters in exchange for performing one of the most dangerous and important jobs in the nation.
“Federal wildland firefighters make up the largest and most professionally trained firefighting force in the world,” Pronto wrote in an editorial provided to The Union that has also appeared on Yubanet.
“We are treated and compensated at a much lesser standard than our private, city and state counterparts who work beside us on the same incidents.”
Pronto’s most recent deployment has been on the Big Hill Helitack Crew, which fought the Bison Fire in Nevada that ripped through the Silver State in July and the American Fire that burned a large swathe of the Tahoe National Forest north of Foresthill and poured voluminous amounts of smoke into western Nevada County in August.
He has been fighting fires since 2007, mostly as a summer job to help supplement his income while he attended a four-year college.
Pronto has fought alongside a variety of people in the fire service for various reasons, from old-timers keeping up their certification to scrape together a few dollars to Lake Tahoe-based ski bums looking to ride out the summer before the lifts start spinning after snowfall.
What they have in common are poor treatment and low pay.
They are not offered 401Ks, starting pay usually hovers between minimum wage and $12 an hour, and while they are provided access to healthcare, coverage is not included.
That access was provided after an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012.
After a devastating wildfire ravaged Colorado Springs, Colo., in July of last year, Obama traveled to the western town to recognize the young men and women who were being hailed as heroes for their grit and sacrifice that eventually led to the quelling of the raging inferno.
During the visit, Obama learned seasonal firefighters were largely uninsured; he immediately instructed officials to offer federal health insurance to all seasonal wildland firefighters, which was carried out only weeks later.
Still, the pay remains comparatively low, which Pronto believes drives quality firefighters to better-paying parts of the fire service.
“Retention rates are atrocious,” Pronto said. “They go to places with better benefits with better retirement. But they are giving up firefighting. A federal wildland firefighter will see more fire in one season than someone working in a city in their entire career.”
Pronto said the issue has been kept under wraps due to a culture of persecuting whistle-blowers.
“You speak up, you get burned,” he said. “It’s better to keep your head down and swing your tool. You start to complain and they just won’t hire you back.”
Pronto, who recently graduated with a four-year degree, said he intends to leave the wildland fire service behind.
But he wants to shed a light on what he perceives to be a persistent problem — federal agencies fighting large fires on the backs of part-time employees who receive little compensation or protection.
“Seasonal firefighters are critical. They represent about 50 percent of the workforce during fire season,” he said.
Pronto is not alone.
Currently, advocates for seasonal wildland firefighters are trying to have a federal bill introduced that would address issues such as pilot program compensation, hazard pay, benefits and retirement accrual.
A petition on MoveOn.org soliciting support of House Resolution 2858 has garnered slightly more than 1,000 signatures.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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