The U.S. Forest Service (FS) announced last week that Station 53 in Anza would close.
Im working on some alternatives and this may only be a temporary situation, said FS San Jacinto Ranger District Fire Chief Norm Walker. During this period, the Kenworthy unit (engine 52) will spend mornings and afternoons in Anza.
During this time of year, fires are more likely to start in Anza than Garner Valley. If lightning strikes are expected, they normally occur in Garner Valley and the engine will remain at station 52, according to Walker.
Regardless of the length of time for the station closure, its cause was the loss of staff. Separately, the engine chief and crew were offered positions with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
While state and local agencies typically offer higher salaries to experienced FS firefighters, the confluence of several other events, such as prosecution of a Forest Service crew boss in Washington, have created strong incentives for those interested in seeking a career change.
The accompanying table compares the salary of a fire or engine captain for the FS with other local and State agencies. This difference is not unusually greater this year.
Although the national and regional offices continue to argue that staffing and station closures are at normal levels, the data suggests an alarming trend.
Locally, one of seven stations is now closed. In the region, more than 10 percent of the 3,600 fire positions are vacant despite efforts since winter to accelerate firefighter hiring.
Although funding exists to meet normal staffing levels, there are still 485 job vacancies in the regions fire organization, wrote Matt Mathes, FS regional information officer. These vacancies mean that currently 75 percent of the regions engines are staffed and two type 2 initial attack crews have leadership vacancies.
In addition, compared to the 2005 fire season, there are fewer type 1 crews and fewer engines in the whole region. Of the 485 vacant fire positions, Walker said he has 11 career vacancies in the San Jacinto district.
For 2008, the FS is actually reducing the number of firefighters available nationwide.
CAL FIRE has added 35 new staff to the Riverside county unit just this spring according to Public Information Officer Capt. Julie Hutchinson.
The Riverside CAL FIRE unit is requesting nearly 70 more positions for 2008. Several of these will be battalion chiefs, according to Howard Windsor, deputy fire chief.
Some of the growth is related to population growth and physical expansion of the county, but some is also related to policy recommendations. For example, CAL FIRE hopes to have two chiefs for each battalion next year.
This will provide direct supervision on a daily basis, Windsor advocated.
The FSs attrition is not simply due to personnel losses to CAL FIRE. Local agencies have also been able to take advantage of a deteriorating morale in the FS. The loss of five colleagues in the Esperanza Fire created a lingering gloom among the men in green.
In December, the U.S. Attorneys Spokane, Wash., office finally decided to press criminal charges against Ellreese Daniels, a FS crew boss, for his actions and decisions in the Thirty-mile fire in July 2001 in which four firefighters died. The Department of Agricultures Office of Inspector General had made the recommendation for criminal charges several years ago following their own investigation of the deaths
This sparked a downward spiral in agency morale that is accelerating. In January, the International Association of Wildland Fire conducted an online survey of federal firefighters and 8 percent were more willing to retire of transfer because of the prosecutions. Twenty-three percent indicated they would refuse incident commander assignments.
National and regional officials are now encouraging field staff to purchase private liability insurance.
The Esperanza Accident Report was not salve on the services wounds. Engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser is indirectly accused of losing situational awareness during the horrific conflagration and with issuing confusing orders and guidance.
This spring the Angeles Forest Fire Chief resigned unexpectedly. His deputy is approaching retirement. So a nearby forest will soon have both top fire jobs vacant. This neighboring forest is in a very high fire risk situation and also has several stations closed.
According to Stanton Florea, Angeles National Forest fire public information officer, the vacancies within that forest are significant, too.
At this point, the Forest Service must endure staff losses, try to fill vacant positions, and then train new hires. This will take time and money for the FS to return, if possible, to a position of once more being whole.
Locally, the San Jacinto Ranger District is fully staffed for fire, except for Anza. The helicopter arrived June 1 and the Vista Grande Hotshots are available.
A lot of departments have to deal with the baby boom retirements, now, Walker said, knowing that meant loss of experience and talent. Whether for the reasons of retirement or transfer, firefighters are leaving the FS as though escaping an out of control fire.