Burning questions

Burning questions

5 April 2008

published by www.sbsun.com

California, USA — Federal lawmakers from California think Washington doesn’t know how to put out fires.

“With a fire, for God’s sake, you’ve got to be able to respond and respond effectively and have that response led by people who understand the forest,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the national forests and fights wildland fires, responded to federal legislation requesting a report on federal firefighter pay and personnel policies with proposals to increase recruitment and retention in the Southern California national forests.

The report, released two months late at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, had little in common with a draft produced by agency officials in California.

“The upshot of the new report is that – `Problem? What problem?’ It seems to be disconnected from the situation on the ground,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who served a stint as a seasonal firefighter with the Forest Service in the ’80s.

According to the final report, the idea that there is a recruitment and retention problem in Southern California is “hard to substantiate based on data.”

The eight-page report – trimmed down from a 22-page draft originally crafted by California-based Forest Service officials – also said recruitment is more than making up for attrition and was scant on specific recommendations.

In their draft, officials painted a very different picture, recommending that firefighter pay, facilities, leadership, training and communications be improved and that perks such as providing day care and more government houses be considered. They also recommended examining job titles for the firefighters, who are classified as forestry technicians.

“This is a critical issue. The lives and property of many Californians are at stake,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who requested the report, said in a statement, “and we must have a competent, professional and adequate firefighting force.”

She said she’d send the draft to a senior-level Agriculture Department official to get further feedback.

According to the report, the Forest Service in Southern California lost 9.4percent of its firefighters in 2007. The rate was 46.6percent for a certain class of junior firefighters.

“When you’re losing half your people in the first year, I think you’re delusional not to realize you’ve got a problem,” Schiff said.

The attrition rates for the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests were the worst in Southern California, according to the report, with 61percent of those departing last year going to state and local fire departments, which pay higher salaries.

“There have to be incentives that show people a future within the Forest Service,” Lewis said.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story because they don’t include all of the temporary firefighters, who make up almost half of the firefighting force, said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

Since October 2006, the San Bernardino National Forest has lost 62 of its 210 firefighters, spokeswoman Valerie Baca said.

Last fire season, one engine was down for a month because of staffing issues, she said.

The report also said talk that Forest Service firefighters are paid far less than state and local firefighters is overblown, in large part because federal firefighters don’t work as many hours.

But that’s because state firefighters get more overtime and are paid for the entire time they are deployed to a fire, say firefighters who did not want their names printed. Federal firefighters at a fire aren’t paid for one-third of the time they are deployed.

“This was a slap in the face,” a captain in the Angeles National Forest said of the report.

Five of the forest’s 28 engines likely won’t be staffed in the coming fire season, he said.

That’s because the Forest Service is losing people in key spots and replacing them with less-qualified people, the captain said.

“We’re bringing them off the street with no experience whatsoever, and we’re filling those slots.”


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