Wanted: experienced firefighters

The Forest Service discovers it's hard to find good help

 

During a spectacular evening thunderstorm in July 1994, lightning ignited a tree on the side of Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo. Residents in the canyon below reported seeing smoke the next day, but federal land-management agencies deployed firefighters to other fires they considered higher priority. For the next few days, they only monitored the fire as it slowly crept across the mountain's shoulder.

Finally, a team of smokejumpers parachuted into what was called the South Canyon Fire. Two hotshot crews hiked in the next day. On July 6, strong winds pushed a wall of flame up the mountain, killing 14 firefighters (HCN, 12/6/99: An angry, compassionate memorial to a mysterious tragedy).

The deaths inspired soul-searching in fire circles, prompting the five federal land-management agencies to study safety on the fireline. Their conclusion: There aren't enough experienced fire managers. Managers not only plan firefighting strategies, but also mobilize, house and feed hundreds of firefighters at a fire complex.

This summer is shaping up to be a hot one for fires, particularly in the Southwest, and many in the fire community fear that the problems spotlighted at South Canyon still exist. Budget cuts are eating away not only at fire-management teams, but also at the attack crews that do the work on the ground.

"We will be less capable of hiring the number of people this summer that we historically did for initial attack," says Lee Clark with the Lewis and Clark Forest. "Overall, the forest budget is half a million dollars below last year's."

Compounding the problem is an exodus of experienced professionals working in such areas as wildlife biology, timber sales, recreation management, and even clerical positions. During big fire seasons, up to 40 percent of these professionals set aside their normal jobs to participate in fire management.

"Twenty-five years ago, when you joined the Forest Service, it was pretty much accepted philosophy that you fight fires or do fire support," says Mike Apicello, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. As agency priorities have shifted, staffers have moved away from firefighting, he says. "We need to educate people that fire management is a part of land stewardship."

To make up for that loss, the agencies have set up more training programs, asking individual firefighters to assess situations for themselves rather than blindly following orders. And to compensate for a shrunken workforce, they are attacking more fires from the air with slurry bombers and hiring more contract fire crews, says Apicello.

"Over the last couple of years we have been bringing up our best young candidates to train and get them some experience at big fires," he adds.

The efforts seem to be paying off, but the agencies aren't out of the woods yet.

Three years ago, Steve Gauger of Region 1's Kootenai Ranger District had trouble recruiting workers to fill two overhead teams. This past year, things looked better, he said, but "there's still some critical areas such as finance, air operations and logistics where it's hard to find people."

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Mont.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews

YOU CAN ...

  • Contact Mike Apicello with the Interagency Fire Center at 208/387-5460;
  • Learn more about the Forest Service's fire-management program on the Web at http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.