Snubbed contractors fear lack of firefighters for Pacific Northwest fire season

14 May 2021

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USA – A group of wildland fire contractors said the US Forest Service left off a slew of qualified, experienced fire crews this week when the federal agency shared the list of awarded contracts, sparking concerns there may not be enough firefighters during the peak of fire season.

The list, shared with KATU Investigates by a contractor whose application was denied, showed 258 crews approved by the US Forest Service. Some of the snubbed business owners said up to 120 crews have been left off.

“To cut back 120 hand crews from the contract, it just seems, it definitely makes my stomach very nervous,” said TJ Hiner. “How do you tell the general populace that we left these crews unable to go to work?”

Hiner said the US Forest Service denied his application for two, 20-person crews.

Previously, the Oregon Department of Forestry handled contracts for the Interagency Firefighting Crew Agreement. Over the last five years, the agency said it contracted with 51 companies for 235 crews.

Contractors said they were mainly focused on fires in Oregon and Washington but could be sent elsewhere if the fire risk in those states was moderate, and other states had a need. The Forest Service would sometimes then reimburse the state for costs associated with it.

This year, the US Forest Service took over the contracting process, and many companies believed it would make the process easier and more accessible. However, when the list came out, they were surprised to be left off.

“Over the years, we’ve had anywhere from 5-15 crews. The last about 12 years we’ve had just three,” said Penny Cox, the owner of CSR Enterprises. “When May 11th came around, we discovered that some of the old-timers who got lots of crews, lots of experience, didn’t make the grade.”

Cox said the agency denied her application because she accidentally left off some information in the nearly 400-page application. She wished she had a chance to fix it.

KATU News spoke to others with the same fate, like Tom Fery, who said he’s been working with the Oregon Department of Forestry for the last 22 years. He was shocked to see he didn’t get a contract for any of the eight crews he applied for.

“All of our costs are paid upfront by us. We pay for all of our equipment and training in advance. I’ve certified over 150 firefighters already for this season anticipating a contract,” said Fery.

Cox, Fery, and others are lobbying the federal government to reverse course and place them on standby. There is no cost unless they’re activated. After last season, they’re concerned the US Forest Service won’t have enough resources.

“We’re talking an army of men who can prevent fire when it’s coming over the hill at 100 miles an hour, and it’s vital, absolutely vital, that someone somewhere, some congressional desk gives us an agreement so that we can go out there and fight fire,” said Cox. “Cost the government nothing, but it could save millions of dollars in lives and homes and property for us to be able to have that opportunity.”

KATU News reached out to the US Forest Service and the members of Oregon’s congressional delegation for some context on decision-making.

The Oregon Department of Forestry said it contracted separately with 31 companies for 200 crews ahead of fire season, but Fery said those contracts were for fires on state land. Fery also said there is some overlap in who got federal and state contracts, thus limiting the potential number of available crews.

Still, ODF said it’s “ready for fire season and [has] the resource needs lined up.”

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