By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Nearly a year after two federal prescribed burns ignited a historic wildfire northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., devastating communities in more than 530 square miles of Northern New Mexico, the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee has approved a bill that aims to help attract and retain firefighters to fight such blazes.
House Bill 345 would create a firefighter recruitment fund to provide bonuses to firefighters who join a fire department.
The bill calls for a $5,000 bonus for each new recruit who stays on the job three years.
The bill does not include an appropriation or estimate the cost of providing the bonuses. Instead, it would set up a fund with a goal of drawing future money from federal grants, state income earned from investments and legislative appropriations.
Rep. Cynthia Borrego, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an interview the sponsors decided to “get a mechanism in place for the funding first and then come back with funding and rules” during next year’s legislative session.
Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Albuquerque, another co-sponsor, said there may be other funding sources, such as federal grants, available that lawmakers can access before next year’s legislation to start the fund.
The fund would be administered by the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Fire officials who attended Tuesday’s hearing lauded the bill, which next goes to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee for consideration.
They said HB 345 can make a difference when it comes to increasing firefighter numbers in a state prone to wildfires.
Capt. Martin Salazar of Albuquerque Fire Rescue said in an interview after the hearing a $5,000 incentive could help pull people into a profession that does not pay as well in New Mexico as in other states.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the mean annual salary for firefighters nationwide is $55,290. It was less than $40,000 in New Mexico in 2021.
An aging, ready-to-retire workforce is another reason to offer bonuses, Salazar said. His agency is down about 50 firefighters, with another 50 or so planning to retire at the end of the year.
“We still respond, but a lot of our firefighters are being overworked and burning out,” he said. HB 345 is “one mechanism to keep talent in New Mexico.”
Ed Lopez, a firefighter for the city of Santa Fe and president of the Local 2059 firefighters union, said in an interview after the hearing that when he applied to the fire cadet training academy in 2009, he was one of 500 applicants.
Last year, just 51 applicants tried to get into the academy, spotlighting the sharp decline in firefighters over the years, he said.
The city has about 25 firefighter vacancies now, he said, which creates challenges in a community with an increasing population and a rise in fire calls. Lopez said the Santa Fe Fire Department had 22,000 calls last year, compared to 10,000 in 2009.
Valencia County fire Chief Matt Propp said his agency is now fully staffed, but it took “months to get there” after a firefighter decline that began shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Propp said “it actually scares me” to think some departments have firefighter shortages in the wake of a record year for forest fires around the state, including the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
Other agencies around the state are also facing shortages, the bill’s fiscal impact report says. It notes the state fire marshal reported a total of 126 vacancies among fire departments in Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, Doña Ana County, Las Cruces and Santa Fe.
“There are likely more vacancies among the more rural fire departments,” the report says.
The report says HB 345 “may incentivize more volunteer firefighters to become career firefighters.”