USA — The U.S. Forest Service must strengthen its oversight of contract firefighters hired to battle wildfires and take steps to ensure those workers have sufficient training and English language skills, a federal audit has concluded.
Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the crews the agency hires through contractors following the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres in southwestern Oregon and cost nearly $150 million to douse. Fire bosses noted numerous problems with poorly trained and inexperienced contract crews in the Pacific Northwest that year, prompting reviews by the Government Accountability Office andothers.
In a new audit released Tuesday, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general found that the Forest Service had corrected some of the problems identified in earlier reports, but other issues remained unresolved.
Auditors reviewed the qualification records for 107 firefighters in 10 private contractors’ offices. For 35 firefighters, records lacked the documentation required for the position.
In some cases, training certificates were missing or task books that show firefighters have completed necessary work for a position were incomplete. Some records also showed that firefighters were promoted to supervisory positions without adequate work experience.
As a result, firefighters who had not received adequate preparation to perform their jobs in a safe and proficient manner are being dispatched to fight wildfires on contract crews, the audit said.
In its response to the audit, the Forest Service concurred with all of the recommendations, saying that no national contracts will be awarded without reviewing the qualification records of key personnel.
The Forest Service generally turns to contract crews in busy wildfire years, when a number of large fires are burning and the availability of fire crews is thin, agency spokeswoman Joni Quarnstrom said Tuesday. In those instances, contract crews often will be assigned to the larger fires, while federal crews handle the initial attack on new fire starts.
We’re committed to improving our contracting procedures for the wildland fire management program, and of course, contracting private firefighters are an important piece of that program, she said.
Contract crews are concentrated primarily in the Pacific Northwest, northern California and the Rocky Mountain region. Most are provided through the Forest Service’s National Firefighter Crew Contract or the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group. The latter is administered by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The audit also found that the Forest Service lacks adequate assurance that supervisors of non-English speaking crews can effectively communicate with fire bosses.
In addition, the Pacific Northwest group has not yet developed a procedure for ensuring that firefighters are proficient in the English language before the wildfire season begins, the audit said.
The presence of crews that cannot communicate with incident management personnel can seriously impact safety on the fire line. In addition, if fire managers reject crews because of communication issues, suppression efforts will be adversely affected and suppression costs increased pending the arrival of replacement crews, the audit said.
Overall, the audit made eight recommendations. They included development of a program to review and verify qualifications of national contract firefighters, as well as a program to verify the training sessions of contractors to ensure they meet Forest Service standards.
The audit also recommended the agency make sure national contract crews and their supervisors can speak English sufficiently to communicate with fire bosses.