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What this year's mild winter means for wildfire season in the western U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

El Nino, the warmer-than-average Pacific Ocean temperatures, can create milder, drier winters in parts of the northwest and the Rockies. That heightens the risk of wildfires at a time when pay raises for Forest Service firefighters are stalled in Congress. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Things are pretty weird this winter, at least here in central Idaho. In the mountain town of Ketchum, locals like Scott Runkel, a high school science teacher, all recount their own moments when that hit home.

SCOTT RUNKEL: I went down to Little Wood Reservoir in the beginning of January to go ice fishing, and it wasn't frozen. And that's never happened.

SIEGLER: At 5,800 feet, Runkle has been watching the winter rain hitting the street outside a cafe with some dread. It's actually three degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average in the Rockies than it was in 1980. And scientists warn climate change could mean even stronger, warmer El Ninos like this in the future.

RUNKEL: You worry about the water, the snowpack and the farming and the fire season when the soil's drier. So it just has these snowballing effects that lead to compounding problems.

SIEGLER: And in the face of these compounding problems, there's another crisis. Right now is when fire managers are staffing up for the more intense summer season. Now, for years, federal firefighters have complained of low wages, but money for increased pay for some 17,000 workers has been tangled up in the congressional budget impasse since last September.

LUCAS MAYFIELD: We need a permanent fix.

SIEGLER: Lucas Mayfield is a former Forest Service firefighter who now runs an advocacy group called Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. In 2021, President Biden gave federal wildland firefighters about a $20,000 pay bump. That ran out last fall, and for now federal agencies are maintaining the pay raises by dipping into their wildfire preparedness and suppression budgets. Mayfield says that uncertainty makes it hard to hire and keep people.

MAYFIELD: The workforce can't wait any longer. They're leaving. The jobs aren't being filled.

SIEGLER: Before that 2021 pay bump, rookie firefighters on the frontlines of this country's wildfire crisis were making about 13 bucks an hour. Federal firefighters say morale is at an all-time low, and there's mass quitting going on. Abel Martinez sees this firsthand on the Angeles National Forest in Southern California, where he's an engine captain.

ABEL MARTINEZ: If the money goes away, we're screwed.

SIEGLER: The most troubling, he says, is that veteran firefighters are leaving or retiring due to the budget impasse, including, locally, several fire bosses. And with them, he says, goes a lot of institutional knowledge.

MARTINEZ: You're losing people that have 15 or 20 years of experience. Those are the people that usually make the critical decisions on these large fires.

SIEGLER: Martinez worries that could lead to more accidents and wildfires getting even more out of control. A bill that would make the pay increases permanent did pass out of a Senate committee, which gives Lucas Mayfield of the grassroots group some hope. He's been looking out his window with alarm at brown, dry hills in Bozeman, Mont., where the snowpack is at a record low.

MAYFIELD: My opinion or my soapbox is that as a country, we need to recognize and fund the efforts to address the wildland fire crisis and pay and appropriate the funds needed to get the work done.

SIEGLER: The latest fiscal cliff deadline in Congress comes in early March. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM FT. FRE$H") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.