USA –A top federal official acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service is losing federal firefighters in California to state and county departments that pay more.
But Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, told concerned lawmakers he’s still evaluating how much of a problem that is.
On the one hand you hate to lose trained people. On the other hand they’re still fighting fires under a unified command system, Rey told a hearing of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee. They’re going to be on the fire line along with the federal firefighters.
Lawmakers convinced there is a problem ordered the Forest Service to come up with a plan by Feb. 1 to increase recruitment and retention for Southern California forests. That deadline has passed but the agency is working on it, officials said.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, questioned Rey on the issue at Tuesday’s hearing. Lewis’ district includes much of San Bernardino County which was hit in the devastating wildfires that raced across Southern California in October.
The San Bernardino National Forest lost 60 of 210 firefighters over the last two years, according to figures from Lewis’ office. The base pay for U.S. Forest Service firefighters is $32,000, compared to $50,000 at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and $60,000 at the San Bernardino County fire force, according to Lewis’ office.
Lewis told Rey that having firefighters available and ready to respond quickly is and should be of concern.
You bring people aboard to carry forward federal forestry service personnel requirements, and after we get them aboard and begin to do the training it would appear we may be training them for state services, Lewis said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to raise the issue next month at a hearing of the Appropriations subcommittee she chairs.
As of this past summer, some 13 percent of the Forest Service’s 3,600 full-time positions in California were vacant.
Rey was also questioned Tuesday on proposed cuts to the Forest Service’s budget in the 2009 fiscal year budget plan President Bush released last week. Some fire prevention money has been slashed but Rey said money can be moved around from other accounts.
However, Kirk Rowdabaugh, president of the National Association of State Foresters, characterized cuts to state fire assistance programs as unprecedented and potentially devastating in their magnitude.