The Collapse of Federal Firefighting in California

The Collapse of Federal Firefighting in California

7 July 2008

published by

By Robert Cruickshank

As my recent articles have shown there is a shortage of firefighters to meet the unprecedented amount of fires burning across our state. As I began digging into this yesterday I came across the same report highlighted in today’s Monterey Herald – that US Forest Service firefighting efforts have been cut to the bone and left the nation vulnerable to massive fires. Deliberate staffing shortages have left the USFS unable to do vital off-season brush clearance, and left them without the staffing to get a quick jump on fires in their crucial initial stages.

“The federal firefighting system is “imploding” in California, due to poor spending decisions and high job vacancy rates, as the region struggles to keep pace with what looks to be a historic fire season, a firefighters’ advocacy group charges.

“As a result, the firefighters say, small fires have exploded into extended, multimillion-dollar conflagrations because the U.S. Forest Service has been unable to contain them during the early “initial attack” stage…

“As the “sheer number” of California wildfires pushed the nation to its worst measurable level of wildland-fire preparedness last week – Level 5 – a national multiagency coordinating group announced in a memo Monday that firefighter staffing levels in Northern California “cannot be maintained.”

The report, by the FWFSA, has been around for a few months now. Wildland firefighters have been screaming about the issue to anyone who would listen, including Dianne Feinstein:

“After facing pressure from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers last spring, the Forest Service promised it would immediately fill its vacancies and launched a “Fire Hire” campaign to attract firefighters in Sacramento that concluded two weeks ago.

“”I believe the agency should have been able to muster a stronger force,” Feinstein said. “All signs indicate that things will only get worse.”

“Feinstein said that despite promises of full staffing from [USFS Administrator Mark] Rey, only 186 of the agency’s 276 engines were manned at the start of the 2008 fire season.

“Ron Thatcher, president of the union that represents 20,000 Forest Service employees, has estimated that attrition has left the service at 70 percent to 80 percent of its authorized staffing levels, and that up to 39 percent of fire crew leader positions were vacant as the 2008 fire season kicked off.”

Rey, Bush’s USFS administrator, has a long background in the timber industry. He blames environmentalists for the problems, but firefighters and those who know the issue are having none of it.

The problem, as the report and the article make clear, is that the USFS is not making an aggressive effort to recruit new hires during the offseason, and particularly their pay is low. The average USFS firefighter makes $56,000 a year whereas Cal Fire averages $64,000 a year. Further, Cal Fire offers better benefits than the USFS, which has resorted to absurd penny pinching to oversee its budget:

“Another issue that firefighters say may come back to bite the region is a brand-new budgetary program – called “accountable cost management”- that was just introduced throughout the Forest Service. Judd said it should have been initiated well before the 2008 fire season started….

“”The Indians Fire commander had no clue about this program, and they’re looking at (cutting) the least expensive resources. The bean counters are looking at these folks and basically timing them as to how long they spend on dinner. Accountable cost management is you’re looking at minutiae and ignoring the real costs,” Judd said. “

The Herald article does not explain what the underlying reason is, but the FWFSA and its members aren’t shy about calling it out – privatization:

“I recently had the opportunity to sit and chat with an old friend of mine who is an SFR2 with CALFIRE. He is no stranger to interagency response and the inherent problems that sometimes arise. We got on the subject of the USFS retention issue and he shed some light that I thought was interesting. In his dealings with the R-5 admin’s, the common thread, vocally expressed behind office doors, is that upper level USFS is purposefully and intentionally “gutting” the agency. The Washington folks are being pressured to eliminate the “fire” responsibility from the USFS and cover it up with budget cuts and the “we are fine” statements. There are plans in the works for a general privatization in R-5 in the near future.

“According to him, CALFIRE is not happy to be in a position to accommodate any private contractors that will come along should there be a hardcore failure of the USFS, nor are they prepared to assume responsibility for the expanded response area that would be created. Sound’s like CATCH 22 to me.”

Color me shocked. Bush is trying to destroy a government agency in order to turn it over to private contractors. As I explained last fall, destroying public firefighting and leaving folks to fend for themselves on the private market is a core conservative goal. Private military contractors rightly scare us, but private firefighting should be even more frightening – what incentive would they have to protect the homes of the poor?

The immediate effect of the intentional gutting of federal firefighting, however, is fires that burn hotter, larger, and longer. And in the absence of sufficient firefighting resources, some individuals take matters into their own hands, as with the family that set their own backfires in Big Sur over the weekend. In Mendocino County and other parts of our state volunteers are trying to pick up the slack but as hard as they work there’s no way volunteers can be a long-term substitute for professional full-time firefighters.

The situation is about to get worse in California. Many of the firefighters in our state are on loan from other states, especially USFS staffs from other Western states. They are due to be rotated out soon, and aren’t likely to return, as the fire season across the West is about to begin in earnest.

Here in California we face another problem: conservatives who oppose new firefighting revenues, preferring to close schools and hospitals to provide enough firefighters. We’re being squeezed between those California conservatives and the conservatives and timber interests in the federal government that have destroyed the USFS’ firefighting capacity.

We are in for a long, hot, destructive summer. Unless we beat back conservative anti-government philosophies and begin restoring federal firefighting to its past staffing levels, more homes will be destroyed, more lives ruined.

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