Letters From the West

Generation of big fires changes firefighting bureaucracy

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14. (Kyle Green/kgreen@idahostatesman.com)

The New York Times has a great story this morning about how the benefits for contract firefighters are so much less than those of federal firefighters.

The Idaho Statesman’s Kyle Green has a great picture with the package. This is just one of the ways that the large fires that have dominated the landscape since Yellowstone have changed the fire bureaucracy.

The size and number of large fires also has changed the agencies.
“In the 50s, 60s and the 70s each ranger district had its own crews and they had a ready source of fire people,” said retired Nez Perce National Forest Fire manager Dave Poncin. “Today those people are gone because of budget cuts.”
Today 40 percent of the firefighters are private contractors, Poncin believes this has increased, not lowered the costs.

In the Park Service the fire suppression people were separated from the resource staff who were doing much of the prescribed burning that the agency had greatly expanded in the 1970s.

“They wouldn’t talk together,” aid Tom Nichols, Chief of and Aviation for the National Park Service. “What happened in 1988 is those two tracks were integrated.”

But eventually, because of tight resources, suppression has gradually reduced resources devoted to preventive burning and management. Fire people have become better trained and more professional but that has forced resource people out.

This also has made fire the driver of the Forest Service budget. Overall the costs of fire suppression now consume nearly half of the entire Forest Service budget. In 1991 fire only accounted for 13 percent. Since 2000, the 10-year average cost has risen almost every year – from a little more than $540 million to more than $1 billion in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West