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Tim Hart’s Death Should Matter

by Michelle Hart |

May 24, 2021, I received the phonecall every firefighter’s spouse dreads and hopes will never come. My husband, Tim Hart (GAC-16), a smokejumper out of West Yellowstone, Montana, was being airlifted to a hospital after a hard landing while parachuting into a wildfire in southern New Mexico.

In a daze, I traveled to the intensive care unit in El Paso, Texas, and spent the next nine days making life-altering decisions for both of us. I was grappling with emotions that changed my life, my outlook on the future, and fundamentally who I am.

On June 2, I sat next to Tim, holding his hand, and stroking his shaved head as life support was removed. I played the song we danced to on our wedding day and sang to him as he took his last breath and his heart finally stilled. I can still close my eyes and see that last moment etched in perfect clarity.

Tim’s tragic death has helped bring to light many concerns, often overlooked, that plague wildland firefighters in the line of duty.

These heroes endure brutal conditions. They sleep on the ground for weeks, work in smoke without the aid of respiratory protection, endure extreme physical and mental fatigue from 16-hour shifts, and combat dangerous conditions through a fire season dramatically extending with each passing year.

Often, the places firefighters serve in during fire season are far away, forcing them to pay rent while also paying their family’s housing costs back home. In even bleaker, but all-too-common scenarios, the lack of affordable housing forces them to live out of tents or personal cars. Tim lived three summers out of his truck because there was no housing available at his base in Idaho.

Exacerbating these concerns is the mental strain and emotional toll caused by these brutal work conditions. Isolation from friends and family translates into frightening statistics that are taking deep root in the firefighting community and impacting their well-being. The suicide rate for federal wildland firefighters is beyond troubling. The divorce rate among women in this field is multiple times higher than the national average, with many more issues manifesting in ways we are still learning about.

For all they are expected to sacrifice and endure, one might think our heroic defenders would receive fair and competitive compensation and benefits. Sadly, I know firsthand this is far from the case. Entry-level wildland firefighters start at just over $13 per hour—a base salary less than many service workers. As their careers progress, they often find themselves in an untenable situation to earn as much overtime and hazard pay to make up for a low base salary. To offset low wages and off-season bills, a perverse incentive is created to work, no matter how physically drained or emotionally exhausted they become.

This outdated and merciless system demands a call to action. I join the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters’ call for Congress and President Joe Biden to immediately enact meaningful reforms.

These include significantly increasing federal wildland firefighter wages, offering year-round and long-term health benefits, implementing proactive and robust mental health programs, and providing housing stipends for those who work far from home.

Federal firefighters should receive their own "wildland firefighter" classification and pay scale—just like other federal government employees. Temporary workers should be allowed to "buy back" their time served as a firefighter to credit their retirement when they are hired as a permanent employee. Finally, programs should be created to study and track the effects of chronic exposure to smoke and firefighting chemicals, and to retrain or re-educate firefighters who wish to transition out of the profession.

These initial steps are the bare minimum and serve only as a starting point of what our country should give those who defend our lives, our homes, and our public land.

In life, Tim had an impact on so many people. I choose to hope that his passing can serve as a wakeup call to the needs of his brothers and sisters who are out fighting on our behalf today.