Report downplays vacancy issues with SoCal federal firefighters

Report downplays vacancy issues with SoCal federal firefighters

01 April 2008

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Entry-level federal firefighters in Southern California leave the force at nearly twice the level as in the Forest Service as a whole, according to a new report Tuesday.

But the U.S. Forest Service report also said that recruitment levels statewide in California are higher than attrition levels and downplayed concerns from lawmakers about vacancies in Southern California’s federal firefighting force.

“Perceptions around recruitment and retention in Southern California are hard to substantiate based on data,” said the report, which was ordered up by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and released at a hearing Tuesday.

For that reason, the report said, making salary or personnel management changes that might attract more federal firefighters in Southern California would be “unwarranted.”

Lawmakers have been concerned that U.S. Forest Service firefighters in Southern California’s four national forests are leaving for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and county and city agencies where they can make much more money and get better benefits. In December, Feinstein included language in a year-end spending bill telling the Forest Service to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Instead, Tuesday’s report focused on suggesting that perceptions that a problem existed “cannot be objectively sustained.”

The report said that among entry-level firefighters in Southern California, the attrition rate was 46.6 percent in 2007, compared with 23.6 percent in the Forest Service as a whole.

But the report said that when higher-level and management employees were accounted for, the attrition rate in Southern California was just 9.4 percent, close to the 6.3 percent level nationally. The Southern California region includes the Los Padres, Cleveland, San Bernardino and Angeles national forests.

Statewide, the Forest Service lost 370 employees of its fire staff in 2007, but through recruitment experienced a net gain of 68, the report said.

The report did not break out numbers for Southern California specifically.

The study “found the situation not to be what people thought it was, but nevertheless found one issue that we want to try to focus on and that’s seeing if we can retain a higher level of these entry-level folks,” said Rey. He had no immediate suggestions for how to do that but said officials were working on that.

The report contained no details on current vacancy rates at the Southern California national forests, and Forest Service officials were unable to provide that. According to February figures provided by California GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis’ office, the San Bernardino National Forest lost 60 of 210 firefighters over the last two years.

The agency said that in California as a whole, which has 18 federal forests, there are currently 2,721 Forest Service firefighters and 312 vacancies. Rey promised Feinstein that by the start of fire season the agency would be fully staffed.

After the hearing Feinstein said she’d have to look more closely at the report before deciding whether she was satisfied with it. “The thing I’m most interested in is getting those positions filled as we go into the fire season, and Mr. Rey committed to getting them filled so it will be 100 percent staffed,” she said.

The report’s conclusions were rejected outright by an official with the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, an advocacy group. The group’s business manager, Casey Judd, called the report a “crock” and a “whitewash,” contending that among other problems it didn’t take into its calculations temporary firefighters, who he said can constitute nearly half a fire team. Judd said staffing levels at Angeles National Forest were at half what they should have been during the last fire season.

The dispute comes in the wake of devastating wildfires that raced across Southern California last fall, destroying nearly 2,200 homes. The fires scorched areas totaling 800 square miles from Malibu to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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