USA — The snowcapped San Bernardino Mountains look safe from wildfires at the moment, but a political maelstrom is brewing in Washington, D.C., that might imperil local national forests.
With U.S. Forest Service firefighters leaving in droves for better-paying jobs and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection looking to hire many of them, the forests could enter the dry season with a hollowed-out core of firefighters protecting them.
A Southern California congressman said a proposed budget cut of $78 million could leave the federal forest agency with few means of enticing firefighters to stay.
To put an end to the threat of losing firefighters, the California section of the Forest Service held meetings in December to discuss the retention problem.
Later in the month, Congress ordered the Forest Service to deliver a report on the issue by Feb. 1.
Forest Service officials then said the report would be released in about two weeks.
But the report remains mired in the Forest Service’s Independence Avenue offices in the nation’s capital.
“I think our frustration is that this is not rocket science. These issues have been around for 20 years,” said Casey Judd, business manager of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a labor group that advocates for federal firefighters.
The report about California is now in Washington and will probably be shared with Congress during hearings this month, said Allison Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service.
“At this point I would say that it’s being reviewed and fine-tuned,” she said.
At least one federal lawmaker isn’t buying the reasons for the delay on the report’s release.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, said he’s eager to see the report.
Schiff is one of six lawmakers representing districts around the Angeles National Forest who sent a missive to Forest Service Chief Abigail R. Kimbell in August asking her about the agency’s failure to address the firefighter compensation issue and about incentives to retain firefighters.
Schiff and other lawmakers wonder if they’re going to get straight talk when the report finally comes out. Schiff is skeptical the Forest Service will adequately address the issue.
“Looking at the president’s budget … I am not confident we will get an adequate answer from the Forest Service or the (Bush) administration,” Schiff said.
“Last year, firefighters put their lives on the line as fires devastated Southern California. These brave men and women deserve a raise, not a pay cut.”
Schiff also criticized President Bush for cutting the Forest Service’s funding by $78 million in his proposed budget.
“Southern California national forests are already struggling to keep firefighters on staff at the salaries they currently receive, and this proposal would leave our forests woefully unprepared for the future,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is hopeful the Forest Service will soon resolve the dispute over compensation.
“The Forest Service has asked for additional time to do their research and complete their recommendation,” said Phil LaVelle, a Feinstein spokesman.
“We expect to hear from them soon, and look forward to resolving this issue.”
He said the missed Feb. 1 deadline for the report isn’t setting off any alarm bells in Washington.
From October 2006 to last spring, the San Bernardino National Forest lost 60 of about 210 firefighters, according to the forest’s fire chief, Mike Dietrich.
A draft of the recommendations to come out of the California meetings in December calls for changes to the way the Forest Service treats its firefighters, who typically earn $20,000 to $30,000 less a year than state and local firefighters.
In addition to addressing the salary discrepancy, the recommendations include paying firefighters for all 24 hours when they are deployed to emergencies, reviewing their training, upgrading facilities, improving firefighters’ quality of life by considering perks like day care and commuting pay, making the agency’s leadership more responsive to firefighters’ concerns and reclassifying their titles.
Forest Service firefighters are referred to as forestry technicians, which many say is a dig at their professional image.
Judd said he worries Washington officials will try to change the report.
“My gut feeling is it’s not going to resemble what was put on the table.”