After a year of funding uncertainty in Congress, agencies are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters.

As the first major heat wave of the year swept through the Western U.S. last week, placing the region on high fire alert, dozens of federal fire engines sat unstaffed in the midst of a firefighter exodus.

Across the federal government, wildland firefighters are walking away, frustrated by low pay, lack of support and congressional inaction, according to firefighter advocates.

“Hiring numbers this year are deplorable,” said Riva Duncan, vice president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an organization advocating for federal firefighters. “Agencies are struggling, again, to fill positions in dispatch and on engines, Hotshot crews, helicopters and jump planes”

Firefighters face a Sept. 30 funding deadline, when a $20,000 or 50% retention bonus established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 could expire.

Should the funding expire, starting wages would revert to the federal employee minimum of just $15 an hour, a rate the Government Accountability Office said in a report “does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work.”