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With pay raises elusive, Florida firefighters battle blazes out west to make money

An airplane tanker flies through smoky air above a home as it drops fire retardant on a wildfire that flared upa week ago near Omak, Wash. Hundreds of Florida firefighters have gone to Washington stateand elsewhere to battle blazes, in part driven by a desire to help and in part driven by a need to supplement their pay. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]
An airplane tanker flies through smoky air above a home as it drops fire retardant on a wildfire that flared upa week ago near Omak, Wash. Hundreds of Florida firefighters have gone to Washington stateand elsewhere to battle blazes, in part driven by a desire to help and in part driven by a need to supplement their pay. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]
Published Sep. 7, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The frost on his sleeping bag told Michael Corgnell what was already abundantly clear.

"This definitely isn't Florida," Corgnell said as he rose from his tent in rural, eastern Washington state Friday morning to prepare for another potential 16-hour shift of fighting forest fires.

Corgnell, a 42-year-old Charlotte County resident, is among more than 470 firefighters from Florida who have given up parts of their summer to battle fires in Western states.

While public safety is part of their motivation, the lack of adequate pay in Florida is another driving force. Average annual pay for the state's 606 forestry firefighters is just over $27,000. Starting firefighters make just $24,000. And since 2006, they have had only one pay increase. In June, the state Legislature approved a $2,000 pay hike for them, but it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

That forces many of the state's firefighters to voluntarily pack up, leave their families behind for months at a time and head west to supplement their incomes with overtime pay subsidized by other states and the federal government.

Never mind that Florida firefighters just ended a turbulent wildfire season of their own, where more than 2,000 fires charred 70,000 acres due in large part to the state's lightning strikes. When the summer rains finally came to quell the fire season, Corgnell said instead of recuperating, he knew he had to volunteer to travel west to provide for his wife and three children.

"That's what you have to do to survive," Corgnell said.

It's a common story, says Tommy Price, a Valrico firefighter and president of the Florida State Fire Service Association. Price, who just returned from fighting fires in Alaska for 26 days, said hundreds of firefighters like him use their vacation time to fight fires in other states. That extra money on top of vacation pay becomes a cash lifeline to get through lean times or the holidays. Those without spare vacation time hope to be paid in overtime by Florida, which is reimbursed by other states and federal agencies who are requesting the help.

"We're not doing it just for money," Price said. "It's what we do. We fight fires."

But he said it is hard to escape the reality of how roughly $20,000 a year in take-home pay affects a family. State pay is so low, he said, that some families rely on public assistance for food.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who oversees the firefighters, recognizes a problem.

"Our forest firefighters put their lives on the line," Putnam said in an interview in June. "They are demonstratively under paid relative to peers."

Earlier this year, Putnam pushed the Legislature to provide firefighters $1.6 million in additional funding for his agency to give $2,000 pay increases for 606 firefighters.

In vetoing the funds, Scott maintained that pay raises for state employees should be addressed on a statewide level, and not just for the forestry firefighters. The only other employees budgeted for a pay hike were workers for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Scott did not veto those raises.

"As you know, I proposed in my budget bonus plans for state workers — I think it's the last two or three years — bonus plans for state workers, which is what I think we ought to be doing," Scott told reporters in June.

After the veto, Putnam said he was "profoundly disappointed" in the governor's decision.

Last week, Putnam had high praise for state firefighters after 46 more volunteered to go to Montana to battle intense wildfires there. Since April, more than 470 Florida firefighters have gone out west to battle blazes.

"Florida Forest Service wildland firefighters are a brave, selfless group of public servants who are always ready to answer the call to help others," the commissioner said.

Price, the Valrico firefighter, said the veto is still a sore topic with many of his peers. He said morale is already low because of the pay and the veto only added to it. But he also said many weren't surprised because of the state's track record.

Corgnell is among 1,100 firefighters from across the country who are fighting the 74,000-acre fire in the Umatilla National Forest. The fires started Aug. 13, triggered by a lightning strike, according to federal officials. The blaze was only 27 percent contained as of Friday morning and was not expected to be fully contained until Oct. 31.

Corgnell expects to be long gone by then. He plans to return to Florida by mid September.

Time away from his family is tough, he said. But he feels it's the right thing to do financially. And it's part of his identity.

"It's what I do," Corgnell said. "My parents were firefighters before me, and that's what I am."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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