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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/.