Firefighters battling the devastating Southern California firestorms in October were assisted by dozens of private engine companies and hand crews whose role in wildfire suppression is expected to grow despite criticism about inadequate training and oversight.
Thirty-one private engine companies — most from the Pacific Northwest — were deployed to the San Bernardino National Forest to combat the Slide and Grass Valley fires, which destroyed 450 homes.
The U.S. Forest Service also sent contract engines and hand crews to fortify firefighting agencies stretched thin by the October fire siege that consumed more than 500,000 acres between Inland Southern California and the Mexican border.
As federal officials turn to contractors to help combat such massive blazes, they are paying closer attention to which crews they hire in the wake of a report indicating that as many as a third of the private firefighters sent onto the fire lines lacked the proper certification to be there.
Even contractors themselves say the federal agencies that hire them could do more to scrutinize their performance and history before dispatching them to a fire.
Jason Kirchner, spokesman for the Forest Service, said all the contractors summoned to California this fall met national training and education standards to work alongside his agency’s firefighters.
“While they may be more expensive on a day-to-day basis, they are less expensive in the long run because we are not maintaining thousands of forces year-round,” Kirchner said.
In the past fiscal year, the Forest Service approved almost $12.5 million to pay for three dozen 20-person hand crews to supplement full-time federal crews, the agency’s records show.
The nation’s growing army of private firefighters, many of whom earn $10 to $11 an hour at entry level with no benefits, has not yet won universal acceptance.
Terry McHale, public policy director for the CDF Firefighters union, said the state won’t hire private firefighters because their education and training do not match that of Cal Fire’s firefighters, who can be called to fight federal wildfires under mutual aid agreements.
A seasonal entry-level U.S. Forest firefighter earns $2,166 a month with no benefits. By contrast, a seasonal Cal Fire firefighter earns a minimum of $2,338 a month in addition to overtime and benefits and, McHale said, there is often the promise of a professional career, which most private firefighters don’t have.
Cal Fire crews are trained in structure protection, expertise not required of a contract wildland firefighter who could be dispatched to fight a blaze in Southern California’s suburbanized national forests.
The San Bernardino National Forest, which stretches southeast from Wrightwood to Idyllwild in Riverside County, is the nation’s most populated forest.
“The fact that we absolutely do not contract with outside firefighters speaks for itself,” McHale said, calling it “a dangerous idea” because he said contract crews do not routinely interface with public agencies, making breakdowns in communications more likely.
Report: Firefighters Unqualified
A 2006 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general followed complaints about the performance of contract crews on the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned a half-million acres in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon.
Investigators reviewed the training records of 107 private firefighters from 10 contract companies and discovered that 35 of them lacked the proper qualifications.
“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 fires on contract crews,” investigators wrote in their report.
The audit revealed a number of failings on the Forest Service’s part:
A failure to properly oversee national firefighter crew contracts.
A lack of proper background checks into the training and experience of contract crews.
Conflicts of interest among contractors who both trained crews and cleared them to fight fires.
Inadequate English-language proficiency among contract crews.
The hiring of undocumented workers.
Investigators also determined that contractors, beyond improperly certifying firefighters, promoted them to supervisory roles too quickly in an effort to garner federal dollars. Crews that appeared more experienced on paper were more likely to win contracts, but no mechanism was in place to ensure that promotions were legitimate.
“Private contractors are under serious business pressure to develop squad bosses (advanced firefighters) and crew bosses, and they may be tempted to advance individuals to those positions before they are ready,” the report states.
Finally, investigators found many instances in which non-English speakers, sometimes undocumented immigrants, were hired as firefighters — and even functioned as supervisors on the fire lines.
“A squad boss’s inability to communicate directly with the crew increases the chances of injury or death in situations that require immediate and accurate directions,” investigators wrote.
Since then, the Oregon Department of Forestry, which administers most of the crew contracts, has obtained added funding to improve administrative oversight and to enforce language proficiency standards, spokesman Rod Nichols said.
The Forest Service oversees the contracts for engine companies and water tenders and doles out contracts for dozens of crews each year in addition to those administered through the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Susan Prentiss, a Forest Service branch chief who helps oversee firefighter contracts, said the agency accepted the audit’s findings and is working to improve the process of evaluating the private firefighting companies bidding on contracts.
“It certainly has taken on a greater emphasis,” she said, adding that since the report, “some awards have not been made due to training records.”
‘Imaginary Wall’ Gone
Throughout most of the 20th century, private-sector firefighting was primarily done in forested areas by timber mill and logging crews. Many went to work as private contractors after timber harvests dwindled.
In the 1980s, Oregon became the first state in the nation to contract with private firefighters. Washington state followed soon afterward.
In Southern California, contract hand crews have periodically been used on wildfires since the 1993 fire siege in San Diego County. But widespread use of private firefighters had, until recently, been mostly limited to the Pacific Northwest.
Jim Wills, owner of a contract company called Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression Inc., said an “imaginary wall” has existed between Northern and Southern California. Wills said Southern California fire bosses have an old perception that private crews are bad.
“Southern California is the fire regime. They’re the fire lords, and everyone else is second-class. It’s a pride deal. We train our guys to know that, that we are the outsiders. We let them know from the very beginning that we will have to take the leftovers,” Wills said.
But in an era of longer and more severe fire seasons, contract crews are being called upon to handle more than “leftovers.” Twice in the past five years — in 2003 and this fall — Southern California’s fire bosses have faced full-blown firestorms: strings of massive blazes burning simultaneously across the region.
Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said the need for contracts is heightened by the departures of Forest Service firefighters leaving the agency for better-paying jobs elsewhere.
“A lot of it is predicated on the fact that the Forest Service hasn’t maintained its own infrastructure,” Judd said. “They have to fill in the gaps somehow.”
Debra Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, said the October firestorms mark the first time in her recollection that contract engine companies were called to a Southern California wildfire.
Miley, whose association’s membership includes 200 private companies representing 10,000 private firefighters, said the federal government recently standardized the contract for private engines, making it easier to deploy to different regions.
Previously, each region had its own specific contract for engine crews, making it more difficult to send them to other areas, Miley said.
The federal government no longer awards the contracts to the lowest bidder, Miley said, but instead gives priority to companies that have the newest engines without enough consideration of their history and past performance.
“The contracts are not performance-based,” Miley said. “The demand will always be there, but what we in the industry would like to see is a stabilization of resources so that you get quality over quantity.”
Prentiss, the Forest Service branch chief overseeing contracts, disputed that notion. She said contract crews are rated on an array of elements including training, experience, past performance, location and cost.
“It’s not just on equipment,” she said.
Despite the recent proliferation of private firefighters in Southern California, contract company owners, many with decades of firefighting experience, say they are still struggling to gain acceptance in the state.
Rick Dice, co-owner of Pat Rick Fire in Redmond, Ore., and president of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, has been in business since 1971 and describes himself as a fifth-generation firefighter.
His company, which has offices in North Carolina, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, is a mix of seasonal and full-time employees. When not out on fires, the full-time workers stay busy with fire prevention and brush-clearing work.
Dice said his service is not meant to replace full-time firefighters.
“I see it as a positive for the taxpayer. They run out of resources or are overwhelmed; that’s when they can call good, qualified contractors,” Dice said.
It’s unfair to think that contract firefighters are less skilled than their public-agency counterparts, he said.
“In the end, they’re all firefighters,” he said, although he acknowledged that the federal government could do a better job of scrutinizing companies.
Wills, Firestorm’s owner, was a U.S. Forest Service firefighter and foreman of a crew of hot shots — a designation given to teams of highly trained wildland firefighters — from 1974 to 1990.
“The interesting thing is contractors are solely funded by ourselves. No grants, no taxpayer dollars to buy firetrucks and equipment. We fund it out of the sweat of our brow because there is a market for it,” said Wills, who pays his entry-level firefighters about $11 an hour plus overtime.
Crew supervisors working for Wills’ company earn between $25 and $28 an hour, plus overtime, he said.
Wills said his industry faces its biggest competition from the “guys in orange suits” — about 4,000 California inmates who are trained and used by the state to fight fires.
“The state uses convicted felons, nontaxpayers, drug addicts, convicted drunk drivers, thieves and scoundrels versus taxpaying, voting people who live in the community,” he said.
Cal Fire Director Ruben Grijalva said his agency, which provides fire coverage to one-third of California, is not considering the use of contract firefighters or engine crews.
“My only concern is that these private crews meet the minimum state standards,” Grijalva said, adding that the bar for training of state firefighters is continuing to be raised, making it difficult for volunteers to maintain their firefighter status.
San Bernardino National Forest Fire Chief Mike Dietrich said his experience with contract crews dates back to his time as a fire boss in the Pacific Northwest several years ago.
Dietrich said he had contract crews reporting to him during the Zaca Fire this summer in Santa Barbara County, and they worked out well.
There is little difference between the way a fire boss approaches a contract crew and an agency crew, Dietrich said. Both crews get their orders from the fire’s operations section chief. Their time is tracked the same way. Still, he questioned whether contract firefighters approach the job with the same resolve as full-time crews.
“What incentive is there to put a fire out?” he said. “If you put the fire out, you’ve worked yourself out of a job.”