WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service will be fully staffed this Southern California fire season despite the exodus of scores of agency firefighters, the nation’s top forest official said Tuesday.
But lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing on the Forest Service’s budget said they remain troubled by the high attrition rate of first-year firefighters, and one agency critic said the problem is far worse than officials admit.
Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey acknowledged that the agency has a problem retaining personnel in the region, particularly as entry-level firefighters leave in droves to take better-paying jobs with municipal fire departments or with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting entity.
Nearly half of the Forest Service’s first-year firefighters in Southern California — 46.6 percent — left the agency’s employ in 2007. The national attrition rate is 26.6 percent, according to a Forest Service report presented to lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Agriculture Subcommittee.
The San Bernardino National Forest and adjacent Angeles National Forest — two of the nation’s most fire-threatened forests — had the most resignations of any of California’s 18 forests last year, according the Forest Service report.
Rey announced that the agency is working on a plan to reverse the Southern California trend. But he also said that recruitment levels nationally are sufficient to fill the vacancies created by departing firefighters.
“These positions have to be filled, and the pay scales have to be comparable,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said as she left the hearing.
Under sharp questioning from Feinstein, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rey vowed that the agency would indeed fill the positions funded for the region in the federal budget.
But Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a firefighter employee group, said he doubts Rey will be able to keep his word.
“For him to promise that they could staff at the funded level is just irresponsible,” said Judd, who attended the hearing but did not testify.
Statewide, there are currently 3,033 permanent firefighter positions, said John Heil, a California-based Forest Service spokesman. Of those, 312 are now vacant. Additionally, the agency projects that it will hire roughly 1,380 seasonal firefighters this year, Heil said. The hiring process is under way, he said.
Departure Motives Disputed
According to the report, 44 percent of the Southern California firefighters who left Forest Service jobs last year did so to take a job with Cal Fire or a local department. However, among those who left the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests, the portion was 61 percent, the report shows.
Rey lamented that the federal government had paid for extensive training for those departing firefighters, but he maintained that many state and local firefighters were, at the same time, joining the Forest Service.
He said the agency doesn’t know exactly how much it spends on training, but new hires must complete 160 hours of training before they are allowed to fight fires.
Pay and Benefits Differ
He said Forest Service hourly pay rates are higher than those on the state level. But the agency’s report concedes that Cal Fire firefighters receive a more generous retirement plan and that they work more hours so their annual pay is higher.
While the Forest Service pays a rank-and-file firefighter an average of $17.85 an hour, an equivalent Cal Fire employee receives an average of $15.04, according to the report. But over the course of a year, that federal firefighter earns $56,096, but the state firefighter gets $64,760 because Cal Fire employees can work more hours.
Firefighters who are single and have no children — those willing to spend days at a time away from home and to work longer hours for more money — may prefer the state pay scale, Rey said.
But those looking for more structured work schedules, and those who prefer the Forest’s Service’s primary function, protecting the wilderness, will remain with that agency, he said.
Rey noted that, apart from the entry-level position, Southern California’s attrition rate is basically on par with national averages. He said the agency is working on a retention plan that would be completed in the coming weeks.
Judd called Rey’s remarks the “typical smoke and mirrors of this agency” and said the retention issue is far more serious than Rey and Forest Chief Abigail Kimbell, who testified alongside him, suggested.
He said many of those leaving the department are experienced, veteran firefighters. Some are even agreeing to take demotions, and yet they still receive better pay at the state and local departments.
Additionally, he said, the firefighters’ reasons for leaving go beyond pay. Firefighters question whether the Forest Service even recognizes that retention is a problem, he said.
“They’ve lost the sense that the agency gives a damn about them,” said Judd who has pushed for higher pay for firefighters.
New Rule Threatens Jobs
Adding to the Forest Service’s woes are new standards that require firefighters to take college courses rather than on-the-job or in-house training to keep their standing.
The federal Office of Personnel Management is currently weighing the new standards.
“I think what’s happening is very, very wrong, unfair and unneeded,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, who raised the issue. “I cannot believe that we’re going to lose experienced managers and experienced firefighters because old OPM says they have to have a certain kind of college degree.”
Domenici, R-N.M., questioned Kimbell about the impact of the new requirements on the Forest Service.
“I think it’s a very serious problem,” Kimbell testified, adding that the agency has put together a task force to look at the potential loss of firefighters who could be deemed unqualified if the rule is implemented.
Officials from the Office of Personnel Management did not answer a request Tuesday afternoon for information about the new standard, which were lambasted by lawmakers at the hearing.
“When you’re out on a wildland fire, I’ll opt for experience every day before I’ll opt for a college degree,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. “The fires we fight today cannot be diagramed in a textbook.”
Rey said that 300 Forest Service firefighters and an additional 500 firefighters who work for Interior Department agencies could be affected.
That threat and the Forest Service’s retention problem come as officials are predicting a severe fire season across the United States and particularly in Southern California.