WASHINGTON — Fighting wildfires did not get any easier last month, but it did get a little more profitable for thousands of full-time and temporary firefighters employed by the federal government.
That’s because the departments of Agriculture and Interior bumped the minimum wage for federal firefighters from $13 an hour up to $15 an hour, a raise that was expected to show up in paychecks just as firefighters were battling to keep a massive blaze from scenic Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border.
Firefighters reported progress Wednesday in the battle to save communities on the south end of the lake after the stiff winds they had feared failed to materialize in the alpine region.
“We lucked out a little bit yesterday with some of the winds that didn’t come up quite as hard as we expected them to,” Tim Ernst, an operations section chief, told firefighters in a morning briefing.
About 11,300 of the 14,500 firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service and another 3,500 of the 5,000 wildland firefighters employed by Interior — through agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management — will see the raise.
In addition to hourly base pay, firefighters can also earn overtime and hazard pay, Larry Moore, an Agriculture spokesperson, said in an email. But the hourly increase raise will help improve pay for frontline firefighters, as well as make firefighting positions more competitive with states like California that pay two to three times the federal base pay.
Arizona lawmakers welcomed the raise as a good first step. But only a first step.
“This pay increase is a really good step in the right direction and I look forward to supporting more permanent increases in the future,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Tucson, in a prepared statement.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, called the raise a temporary measure, adding that “$15 an hour is a wage that is not appropriate” for what firefighters are called upon to do.
The raises follow President Joe Biden’s surprise to learn during a meeting on wildfires in late June that the minimum wage for federal firefighters was $13 per hour.
“That’s going to end in my administration,” Biden said at the time, pounding the table for emphasis. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”
The Caldor Fire has been burning toward Lake Tahoe from the southwest along California Highway 50, climbing over a high-elevation Sierra Nevada summit and descending into the Tahoe Basin.
“We were fortunate the fire did not make as strong a push into Tahoe as it did the previous day,” Ernst said.
Despite the positive developments, firefighters were warned that critical weather conditions remained and they would likely face gusty, swirling winds all day.
Thick smoke from the Caldor Fire has enveloped the city of South Lake Tahoe, which is all but deserted at a time when it would normally be swarming with tourists. On Monday, roughly 22,000 residents jammed the city’s main artery for hours after they were ordered to leave.
South Lake Tahoe city officials said only a handful of residents defied Monday’s evacuation order. But nearly everyone was monitoring the winds, which could determine whether flames bypass the city.
Nationally, 42,647 wildfires have been recorded so far this year, which have burned nearly 4.9 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 25,000 personnel had been sent to fight those fires as of Sunday.
Arizona has had three major wildfires so far this year, burning a total of 128,760 acres, according to InciWeb, but it reported no active major fires in the state as of Monday.
The federal pay raise was formalized earlier this month in a joint statement by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
In addition to the hourly raise, the government will provide one-time awards of up to $1,300 for temporary firefighters and up to 10% of six months of a permanent firefighter’s base pay. Moore said the raise is retroactive to June 30.
The agencies’ announcement noted that the national wildfire preparedness level was raised on July 14 to PL5, its highest level, in response to the wildfire threat. It was just the third time in 20 years that the level was that high by mid-July, their statement said.
Vilsack said federal agencies must have the resources to meet the challenge of what is expected to be a steadily increasing risk of wildfires, “with the growing threat of climate change, severe droughts and longer, more intense fire years.” Firefighter pay is just one step in that direction, he said.
“By improving pay, we will not only support our wildland firefighters in a challenging year, but also improve our ability to hire and retain top talent,” she said.
But O’Halleran said the current increase might not be enough to retain wildland firefighters in the long run, who are increasingly needed all year long, not only during fire season.
“I hope it’s enough right now, but we are going to have a look at their whole package; salaries, benefits, etc,” he said. “Because we need these same full-time people in the field during the non-fire season.”
CASA GRANDE — Workers at a job site near Casa Grande got a surprise around lunch time Tuesday when a woman allegedly stole one of their work trucks.
Tiffany Leann Fridline, 38, allegedly stole a red truck from a work site near Jimmie Kerr Boulevard and Interstate 10 around noon, according to Casa Grande Police spokesman Thomas Anderson. One of the workers followed her into Casa Grande, where police officers spotted her in the truck on Cottonwood Lane near Trekell Road.
Officers were able to use spike strips to deflate one of the truck’s front tires. The vehicle came to a stop near Ariana Way and Santiana Place in the Mission Valley neighborhood, Anderson said.
Fridline tried to flee on foot, he said. She was taken into custody and to the hospital to be checked out before being booked into the county jail.
She was arrested on suspicion of unlawful flight from law enforcement, resisting arrest and theft of means of transportation.
She was released on her own recognizance and was arrested on suspicion of new charges of theft of means of transportation and aggravated assault on Sept. 1. It is currently unknown what the new charges are related to.
Anderson said the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office will be investigating a collision at the beginning of the pursuit. Fridline’s hometown is unknown at this time.
Fridline appears to be the same person who was reported to Eloy Police as overdue around 5 p.m. on Aug. 30 and was last seen in the area of Sunland Gin Road, according to Eloy Police officials. Eloy Police posted a description of the missing woman and a photograph to their Facebook page and later amended the post to state that the woman had been found.
CASA GRANDE — Do you prefer crabs from the deep sea or pizza from the deep dish? Local residents will be grateful to soon have these options when they dine out.
Two long-rumored and long-awaited popular franchises made recent announcements online about when locals could expect them to open, and what they could expect.
The Mesa-based Angry Crab Shack confirmed it is coming to Casa Grande and taking over the space at 1601 E. Florence Blvd. formerly occupied by the Thirsty Donkey.
“The rumors are true,” the company said in a Facebook post Monday. “We’re coming for you!”
The family-friendly chain, which has restaurants in Arizona, Nevada and Alabama, specializes in seafood boil with Asian-Cajun-style seasoning.
Further east down the boulevard, Rosati’s Pizza said it is installing pizza ovens in a location at The Promenade at Casa Grande.
The popular pizza chain, which started in Chicago, said it is planning for a Sept. 15 opening date in Casa Grande. The restaurant scheduled two job fairs for a number of roles, including “pizza maker,” from 9 a.m. to noon on Aug. 28 and Sept. 4.
This will be the second attempt at a Rosati’s in Casa Grande; the first was located on Trekell Road. The new Rosati’s will have delivery available and the official address will be 1269 N. Promenade Parkway, across from the movie theaters.
The two restaurants are set to join Rili B’s Taco Shop as food options that have opened since the summer in Casa Grande. Rili B’s is located on the southwest corner of Pinal Avenue and Cottonwood Lane; the eatery is open 24 hours and boasts that its birria is made fresh daily.
The Angry Crab location did not announce a specific date but the Facebook page teased a fall opening timeline.