U.S.A.: Budget shortfall, drought real bad mix

USA:Firefighting businesses gear up for a hot summer

13March 2005

By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer

Drought conditions across the nation show up on Clint Kolarich’s computer screen as a color-coded map, with vast swaths of the West covered in tan, orange and brown for “severe,” “extreme” and “exceptional.”

It almost looks like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are already up in flames.
For Bridger Fire Inc. and other Montana companies that make a living fighting wildland fires, business could be hot this summer.

“Looking at this year, the potential is incredible,” Kolarich, 36, the firm’s assistant fire management officer, said last week. “It doesn’t mean it will come to fruition. … I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Another year of drought may be disastrous for farmers, fishing guides and free-wheeling rafting companies.

But it could mean a busy summer for hundreds of businesses that contract with state and federal governments to provide firefighting, catering, Porta-potties, portable showers, bulldozers, water tenders, airplanes and helicopters.

None of those services is cheap. Last year, the Gallatin National Forest paid close to $3,000 a day for a large engine and three-person crew operating 24 hours, said Lorette Ray, the forest’s public affairs officer.

The Bush administration has been trying to cut back on the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting budgets, instead putting money into thinning trees to reduce fuels.

Yet Mike Carisch, owner of Carisch Helicopters west of Belgrade, isn’t too worried the government will stop hiring him to fight fires.

“When you get a big fire threatening homes, the government has to bite the bullet, protect the homes,” Carisch said.

“It could be one of the better fire years,” he said. “It could be very smoky in the state of Montana.”

Always fire somewhere

Bridger Fire Inc. is gearing up now — training a dozen rookie firefighters and fixing up its fleet of six bright red, custom-built, wildland fire trucks.

The 10-year-old private firefighting company, owned by Dave Ronsen, is located north of Bridger Drive. By summer, it should be at full strength with 35 employees.

“People know it’s a company they can go to for experienced, well-developed crews,” Kolarich said. “We’ve a commitment to training and to our equipment — it’s top-of-the-line.”

Its trucks have the latest technology, like compressed-air foam, good at protecting homes threatened by forest fires by coating them with foam.

“It’s kind of like shaving cream,” Kolarich said. “It can buy us 30 minutes.”

Bridger Fire’s six engines, each with three-person crew, will be busy, even if Montana gets another cool, wet summer like last year.

The company has sent crews to California to fight fires, to Minnesota to do prescribed burns, and to Florida for hurricane relief work. On its office walls are framed news stories from New

Mexico and letters of thanks from residents whose homes were saved in Wyoming.

“The way we look at it,” Kolarich said, “there’s always fires somewhere.”

Adventure and good pay

Seven Bridger Fire rookie firefighters — six guys and one gal — sat through a classroom discussion last week on safety, learning how to avoid helicopter rotors and other hazards.

Then they headed back to the shop to check out the tools of the trade. These will range from the primitive Pulaskis and shovels, to chain saws and drip torches, to high-tech satellite phones and GPS location finders.

“I kind of got interested because of the adventure,” said Mike Olson, 27, of Bozeman. “See new lands, maybe do some good.”

Jaymie Young, 26, originally from New York, said he liked the idea of “working in a team environment, working hard.”

“I just want to be outside,” said Katie Cook, 20.

“For me, it’s a perfect job,” said their trainer, Bill Alexander, a veteran wildland firefighter. “Good people, good equipment.”

“The only thing they left out is the money, small furry animals and the girls,” joked fellow trainer Perry Cota, getting a laugh from the crew.

Camaraderie is just one part of the job’s attraction. Firefighting can pay well. There’s potential for up to 1,000 hours of overtime in a five-month season, Kolarich said.

Pay for Bridger Fire’s beginning firefighters is similar to government rates, which start around $8 to $10 an hour. Experienced firefighters can earn slightly more. The company has finished hiring for this season.

Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation just finished taking applications for seasonal firefighters on Friday. The Gallatin National Forest is still taking applications, and recommends getting them in by the end of the month. (Information is available at www.avuedigitalservices.com/usfs/applicant.html)

The Forest Service’s lowest-grade seasonal firefighter earns $10.52 an hour. Higher grade jobs, like helitack crews, can pay from $13 up to $17 an hour.

Bridger Fire’s private firefighters — who often hold down other seasonal jobs as hunting guides, paramedics and ski lift operators — must pass the company’s physical fitness standards, in addition to the federal government’s pack test, Kolarich said. That means carrying a 45-pound pack three miles in 45 minutes or less.

Feds cut

The Gallatin National Forest budgeted $2.9 million last year for fire preparedness and hired about 52 seasonal firefighters, including smokejumpers, hand crews and some engine crews. Whether those numbers will be cut this year isn’t yet clear, spokeswoman Ray said.

“That’s part of the discussions going on right now,” she said. “We just don’t know yet.”

However, the Butte Standard recently reported that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest may cut more than 50 seasonal workers to make up a $1.5 million difference in its fire-preparedness budget.

Western senators were furious this month that the Bush administration has proposed cutting wildland firefighting funds for next year, the Associated Press reported.

Yet federal firefighting costs have escalated dramatically in the last decade. The U.S. government spent $1.6 billion on firefighting in 2002, the worst fire season in 50 years, when 7 million acres burned.

In Montana, DNRC has about $9.5 million budgeted for fire services, said Dave Ewer, the governor’s budget director. If there’s a bad fire season, firefighting would be paid for out of the state’s $80 million general fund budget balance.

“It’s not a huge cushion,” Ewer said, which could shrink further if income taxes fall short or the federal government cuts Medicaid funding. “Let’s hope for the best.”

Fighting fires with flyers

Mike Carisch, 40, owner of Carisch Helicopters, has been fighting fires for 15 years, from Montana to Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Alaska. In April, he flies to Minnesota to fight grass fires.

Last year the Forest Service sent him to Alaska for 20 days. Then he flew his Bell helicopter straight to Yellowstone National Park. Usually he’s hauling a water bucket on a 100-foot cable, dipping water out of rivers and lakes to dump on fires.

Sometimes he’s paid for sitting on the ground and being available. To be on call typically pays $2,000 to $2,500 a day. If he’s flying to fight fires, the rate averages $4,000 to $5,000 a day.

“I make a lot of money, but it goes right back out the door for parts on a helicopter,” Carisch said.

Every 1,700 hours, he has to replace a section of the turbine engine, which runs $35,000. Main rotor blades have to be replaced after 5,000 hours at $50,000 a pop. Engine overhauls cost $90,000.

Then there’s hiring a couple employees, and rising costs for fuel and insurance — about $50,000 a year.

What’s harder to quantify is the risk.

Carisch recalled rescuing some people from the East Rosebud fire near Red Lodge in 1996.

“That fire was pretty hairy,” he said. “It went from 100 acres to burning the whole canyon down and the homes in one day. We had to go in and rescue some people when that fire blew up.

“It is dangerous. It’s just part of the job.”

“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Carisch said. “I enjoy fighting fires, enjoy the Forest Service, enjoy the people. It gives me a sense of accomplishment — making a difference.”

Bridger Fire’s Kolarich is also drawn to firefighting by the challenge — mental and physical — and the chance to work outdoors.

“I hear a lot of firefighters call it a disease,” Kolarich joked. “My old boss once explained it can be 90 percent ho-hum and 10 percent pure adrenaline. And once you hit that, either you never do it again or you never leave.”


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