On the Fire Lines, a Shift to Private Contractors

On the Fire Lines, a Shift to Private Contractors

17 August 2008

published by www.nytimes.com

USA — Scott Charlson never dreamed of becoming a firefighter. But when a job on a fire crew came calling this summer, Mr. Charlson, a budding sportswriter and a college student, jumped at the chance to make some quick but hard-earned cash.

“That was his main goal in going out there,” said his brother, Jake. “To get money for school and to buy himself a new car.”

That never happened. Mr. Charlson, 25, died this month when a helicopter ferrying fire personnel over a Northern California forest crashed, killing nine aboard and injuring four. Mr. Charlson, a student at Southern Oregon University, and the other victims were eulogized at a memorial here on Friday, a somber ceremony that spoke to both the ever-present dangers of firefighting and the changing complexion of its workforce.

Seven of the dead were privately contracted firefighters — none older than 30 — working with the company Grayback Forestry Inc., a large and respected private firefighting company. An eighth victim, a pilot, was employed by Carson Helicopters Inc., another well-regarded private firm specializing in firefighting. Only one of the deceased was an employee of theUnited States Forest Service.

Such a mix is not uncommon. Faced by a series of intense fire seasons and demands on firefighters nationwide, officials are increasingly working within a de facto public-private partnership.

“The public always assumed that there was some private presence, but I don’t think they know that we cut line right next to hot-shot crews,” said Jess Wills, the operations manager at Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression, a for-profit company in Chico, Calif. “We’re out there firefighting right next to them.”

The federal government has long used private contractors for support, including the providing of showers, tents, catering, bulldozers and water trucks. Aviation, in particular, has been an area in which federal officials have depended on the private sector, arguing that because of the seasonal nature of fires it is better to contract work out than to pay for year-round staffing.

But the increase in ground crews, and the lengthier fire season, has left some firefighter advocates wondering if taxpayer money would be better spent improving federal resources.

“When someone’s facing a wildfire, and their property is impinged on, they don’t care about the cost and they don’t care what agency,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, an employee association representing firefighters. “But at some point in time, they have to realize they are footing the bill.”

Marc Rounsaville, the deputy director for fire and aviation at the Forest Service, said that there had been an increase in crews working on the ground and often close to fire, cutting fire breaks, known as cutting line, and putting out spot fires, just as the Grayback team was before the Aug. 5 crash.

Mr. Rounsaville said the increase in private hand crews was due in part to fewer federal timber crews in the field. Such crews, who do a variety of tasks including reforestation and preparation for timber sales, are also used to help fight wildfires.

But as the Forest Service’s timber harvesting declined, so did its number of crews. “We lost those people,” he said. “So they weren’t available on a call-when-needed basis.”

The result was the miniboom over the last decade in the number of contractors, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where the decline in the lumber industry has also stripped many communities of jobs.

Today, the National Wildfire Suppression Association, a trade group for private contractors based in Stayton, Ore., counts more than 200 business members, representing more than 10,000 firefighters, with nearly 100 companies in Oregon alone. Some Oregon community colleges have started to offer classes in wildland firefighting, complete with on-the-job training during which students cut fire lines, slash brush and lay fire hose over steep terrain.

Debbie Miley, the wildfire association’s executive director, said that about 75 percent of the nation’s private firefighting services come out of the Pacific Northwest, “even higher than that for ground crews,” she said.

Because many fire assignments for contractors were in years past awarded because of proximity to fires and the company’s price, such rapid growth initially also led to some unscrupulous practices, including ghost operations, said Rod Nichols, an information officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“At one point we had more than 300 crews, and so we had companies that would claim dispatch locations that didn’t exist,” Mr. Nichols said. “One of our contracting officers would go out to inspect a location and it would be a parking lot, or a restaurant.”

But in 2006, the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group, an association of federal and state fire agencies in Oregon and Washington, began ranking crew companies bidding for government contracts on new criteria, including their performance and safety records.

California, another fire-plagued state, also has so-called best value contracts for hand crews, and other regions have similar stipulations for private contracts on water trucks and fire engines.

Ms. Miley said her trade group had pushed for the changes in contracts, and the winnowing out of shady contactors.

“You’re getting a change from quantity to quality,” Ms. Miley said.

Exactly how much is spent on ground crews varies from year to year, depending on the extent of fires; in 2006, considered a bad year for wildfires, about $87 million in federal and state money was spent on crews, water trucks and engines, according to the Forest Service.

For prospective firefighters, meanwhile, the appeal of private-sector jobs is easy to see. While the starting salary might be only $10 or $11 an hour, overtime quickly kicks in as firefighters log 12- to 16-hour days. Fire crews also receive the similar training as federal firefighters, often taught by retired federal employees, giving them a valuable leg up for other firefighting jobs.

Moreover, working on a wildfire means that food and housing, even if it is a tent, is taken care of.

Jolin Loleit, 26, said her summertime work with GFP Enterprises Inc., a private company in Sisters, Ore., allowed her freedom to travel the rest of year.

“It’s very addictive,” Ms. Loleit said. “You work four months and then take the rest of the year off.”

Now in her third year, Ms. Loleit has graduated from work on the fire line to logistical support. But for those still in the wild, the work is undeniably hard. Crews use shovels, axes and hoes to cut line.

Some crews are “spiked” at certain locations, far from base camp, meaning they live in the wilderness for days at a time, eating premade meals, lugging water and heavy equipment, and sleeping in small tents or under the stars.

Scott Posner, who was the task force leader for the crew that crashed, said there was little differentiation made between federal firefighters and private workers on the fire line.

“You’re all in yellow and green,” said Mr. Posner, referring to the protective yellow shirts and green khaki pants usually worn in fire zones.

At the memorial here on Friday morning, several hundred private firefighters walked single-file into an amphitheater alongside Forest Service andBureau of Land Management fire officials. At the memorial’s conclusion, members of a federal honor guard passed folded flags and other mementos to Grayback firefighters and a Carson Helicopter official, who passed them along to the victims’ families.

Such camaraderie and community appealed to Scott Charlson, said his mother, Nina, who said her son had wanted to write a book about his time on the fire line.

“After the first two weeks, and after talking to the crew, I think he was bit by the bug,” she said. “Because it was so much more than he ever thought it was.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien