Two dozen Western firefighters ordered to return overtime pay
LOS ANGELES — About two dozen veteran firefighters who spent months battling a series of destructive wildfires across the West have been ordered to return thousands of dollars in overtime pay.
The firefighters, who work for the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, were told in recent weeks they had worked too much overtime and exceeded salary limits. Federal law restricts pay for firefighters to $121,600 a year.
Jim Loach, one of the Park Service’s veteran fire managers, has been asked to return more than $12,000.
“Watching my time sheet wasn’t my concern,” said Loach, who earns $117,000 annually. “I was getting out there and providing a service to the country, to get a handle on all those fires. That’s what we do.”
Officials said they are trying to find a way to allow the firefighters to keep their overtime, which may include paying back the funds, but receiving reimbursements in some other form.
“We’re still trying to work out the logistics, but we’re going to make it right with them,” said Heidi Valetkevitch, a Forest Service spokeswoman.
She estimated about 20 of the Forest Service’s most experienced managers received payback orders.
John Wright, spokesman for the Interior Department, said he knew of only one person who was paid too much. “We’re going to try to work out a system that’s equitable to resolve this,” he said.
Fires burned more than 7 million acres this year, which was nearly double the 10-year annual average. The largest firefighting efforts were coordinated by these seasoned fire managers who traveled from one incident to the next, managing thousands of firefighters.
John C. Bedell, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor in Arizona, was told to pay back about $1,000 in overtime he earned while helping to manage the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
“It’s an outrage,” said Bedell, a 39-year veteran. “I was just dealing with the emergency at hand, and it never occurred to me to say that tomorrow I can only work 10 more hours, then see ya.”