USA — The U.S. Forest Service might be facing a crisis, with firefighters leaving in droves for state and local firefighting jobs that offer higher salaries.
USFS officials, while accustomed to losing people to other jobs in California, are alarmed at the increasing numbers of those jumping ship.
“It’s been going on for a large number of years, however, not at … this rate,” said Mike Dietrich, fire chief for the San Bernardino National Forest.
In 2006, the 671,700-acre national forest lost 60 firefighters to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local fire agencies, Dietrich said.
The forest has about 210 permanent firefighting positions.
The federal government’s Forest Service leads the front-line response to fires in the San Bernardino Mountains and other national forests.
The base salary for a Forest Service firefighter is about $32,000, according to the Forest Service. The CDF pays the same person almost $50,000. Minimum pay for a San Bernardino firefighter is about $60,000.
The loss of federal firefighters to state and local agencies has always been a fact of life for the USFS. But the pace of departures has picked up, said Dietrich and others familiar with the situation.
“It means that you will not have the federal fire-service protection you assume you have,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which lobbies for federal wildland firefighters.
What might the loss of federal firefighters mean in the mountains? Fires might cost more to extinguish, Judd said.
Fire trucks and other firefighting equipment might have to be moved over longer distances to attack fires, meaning conflagrations could grow more quickly and pose greater dangers.
Another problem for the USFS is the loss of midlevel and younger-generation firefighters who would otherwise get promoted from within, agency officials have admitted. The trend has created a kind of leadership vacuum, Dietrich said.
“You may end up putting people into positions who may not have all the experience that’s ideal for the situation,” he said.
He said last year was a “tough” one to handle as the loss of high-ranking firefighters translated into less-experienced ones fighting major fires for the Forest Service.
Some firefighters interviewed even believe the Forest Service might begin shuttering stations next year in the San Bernardino National Forest, a troubling trend given recent concerns over drought conditions and huge fires that wreaked havoc throughout the region in October.
Prospects for keeping firefighters don’t look good.
One Forest Service firefighter in the national forest who applied to work at the CDF said he is in a two-week CDF basic-training academy so he can make the jump.
He estimated that 26 out of the approximately 32 people in the class are Forest Service firefighters there for the same reason.
After the first of the year, Judd plans to push federal lawmakers to take up legislation to improve federal firefighters’ hazard pay and provide benefits to temporary firefighters.
Dietrich said other Southern California forest supervisors on the ground are aware of the retention problems and have brought them to the attention of regional and national officials.
“We listen to our firefighters and we hope that we can make a difference this next year,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is worried about the Forest Service job losses.
“I have directed my staff to work with the Forest Service on a long-term solution to this problem, and to make this a top priority,” she said in a statement.
Feinstein might find it tough to find help.
The Forest Service is seeing a decline of $64.25 million in next fiscal year’s budget request from the Bush administration.