Wet summer a bust for firefighters

  • A fellow firefighter fastens Sabino Archuleta's"chute

    Mark Matthews
 

MISSOULA, Mont. - Across the West it's been a good year for rain and a bad one for firefighters. Heavy snows, spring rains and little dry lightning have made this fire season a bust so far.

In the Northern Rockies area, the Forest Service says 1,052 fires had burned less than 10,000 acres by Aug. 25 of a season that extends to early October. By the same date last year, 2,138 fires had charred almost 180,000 acres. In Utah, where fires burned 470,000 acres last year, only some 23,000 acres have burned this year.

While that's good news for taxpayers, many state and federal firefighters will feel the pinch of slim paychecks this winter. In Missoula, smokejumpers have yet to make a single jump within the region.

For the most part it's been the same across the country. Subtract the half-million acres burning untended in Alaska's tundra, and the national totals are almost a million burned acres below the 10-year average of 2.6 million acres.

Firefighting depot towns, such as Missoula and Boise, which supply the needs of regional firefighting activity, are losing millions of dollars, says economist Thomas Power of the University of Montana.

"When there comes an emergency, people are pressed into work," " Power said. "The towns supply lodging and materials and cater food. Plus, they dry-clean sleeping bags and wash clothes." "

Here's an example of the difference a busy fire season can make: In 1993, a wet summer across much of the West, Montana's Lolo National Forest spent only $900,000 to suppress fires, which included payment for supplies, support services and salaries for firefighters. In 1994, a tinderbox-dry season, the forest spent $9.1 million.

A slow fire season devastates Indian reservations. Firefighters from Montana's Blackfeet tribe brought home about $3 million last year and nearly $7 million in 1994, according to fire management officer Calvin Herrera. But about 400 people on the Blackfeet Reservation were waiting to fight fire this summer.

"A lot of people depend on firefighting for their base wage," said Herrera. Tribal leaders estimate unemployment fluctuates from 40 to 75 percent, depending on the time of year.

Indian firefighters who are organized under the Bureau of Indian Affairs earn more than $10,000 in a good year and also qualify for unemployment benefits over the winter. Firefighting wages range from $7.15 an hour for rookie ground-pounders to $14.85 for a smokejumper foreman. Add 50 percent an hour for overtime, and 25 percent hazard pay when on a fire, and the money adds up.

"These are some of the best-paying jobs for unskilled labor in Montana," " Power said. 'They are heavily sought after.' "

But this year, Herrera said, many people may be forced onto welfare.

For federal seasonal firefighters, organized under the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the problem isn't quite as bad. They get paid for a 40-hour week while on standby. But many who earn the bulk of their annual earnings working overtime during the summer must adjust their standard of living after a slow fire season.

Working straight time for four months, smokejumpers bring in about $8,000; during an intense fire season they can earn up to $16,000.

"There are good and bad years and you adjust accordingly," said 23-year veteran smokejumper Wayne Williams. "A lot of jumpers still make enough money to do what they want to do during the winter. They can still make house payments, or go to school. It's not like we're crawling through the desert with no water."

But state and local forest attack crews, who are mainly dispatched nearby and not across the West, will struggle to make ends meet. Many of these crew members are college students.

"I was expecting to make enough money to pay for my own apartment, school and auto insurance, but it looks like I'll have to work during school this winter," said Mandy Williams, of Frenchtown, Mont., a worker at the Ninemile Ranger District. "It's going to be a tough semester."

Not everyone is about to give up on the season. Fire crews have recently been battling fires in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Said Missoula smokejumper Sabino Archuleta, "I won't write it off until I see three inches of snow on the ground."

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Montana.

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