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High housing costs have been a major problem for wildfire fighters and other U.S. Forest Service employees for years. The agency has now taken steps to alleviate that problem — at least temporarily for some federal employees.

This week, the agency announced that it would reimburse half the rent for all forestry employees up to a certain salary group (GS 10, level 10) and for living in state-owned housing.

The temporary measure is retroactive to March 10 and will last until the end of September. According to the agency, which employs a total of almost 30,000 people, up to 5,500 employees are expected to benefit.

In a message to the agency, Forest Service Director Randy Moore thanked employees for sharing their experiences and suggestions regarding the housing shortage.

“We have heard you and are using this information to work with staff and the department to find solutions to the affordable housing crisis,” he said in a written statement.

The costs for accommodating forest fire fighters are particularly high.

“You could only live in government housing four days a month while you’re traveling around the country responding to fires, and then you’re paying a per diem that’s deducted from your pay,” said Luke Mayfield, president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “And because of the rent increases we’ve seen over the last few years, there are times when you’re paying more in rent than you’re getting in base pay.”

Many firefighters report living in their cars or at campgrounds because of high housing costs. The National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), which lobbied for the measure, said the Forest Service “is also exploring options to provide housing assistance to those who rent from private housing providers in high-cost-of-living areas.”

NFFE also said the agency will “invest additional resources to address the backlog of deferred maintenance and improve the condition of Forest Service-owned housing.”

“They are in a state of disrepair, there are rodents and asbestos. You are living in uninhabitable conditions and paying a theoretical market price for a house that no one would actually live in,” Mayfield said of the conditions in some state-owned housing.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from partner stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Society for Public Broadcasting.

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