Northwest Firefighting Shortage (Report)

Reported by SwanoDown 

It is a discomforting feeling when public services put in place to help the public are cut short. Every year during the summer months forest fires run rampant on the western side of the country. Recently, in Northwestern states such as Washington, Oregon, and Montana there has been a decline of contracts allocated for firefighting crews. In May, the US Forest Service left off many experienced fire crews from the list they shared of approved contracts. This in turn increased concern over having a shorthanded firefighting force. 

Close to 400 crews applied this year and close to a third were denied. Tom Fery has worked with the Oregon Department of Forestry for the last 22 years and stated that of the eight different crews he and his company applied for, all were denied contracts. Fery had this to say: “All of our costs are paid upfront by us. We pay for all of our equipment and training in advance. I’ve certified over 150 firefighters already for this season anticipating a contract.” 

Penny Cox is the owner of CSR Enterprises and she reflected on her recent experience. “Over the years, we’ve had anywhere from 5-15 crews. The last 12 years we’ve had just three.” These circumstances are ridiculous as veteran firefighters are not only being deprived of the opportunity to save lives but are also being deprived of jobs. 

Both Cox and Fery are lobbying to have their firefighters on standby. “We’re talking an army of men who can prevent fire when it’s coming over the hill at 100 miles an hour, and it’s vital, absolutely vital, that someone somewhere, some congressional desk gives us an agreement so that we can go out there and fight fire,” said Cox. She also suggested it cost the government insignificant amounts but “it could save millions of dollars in lives and homes and property for us to be able to have that opportunity.”

In Montana many crews are experiencing similar problems. This year’s fire season has been expected to be worse than others which is why having so many contracts in limbo worries workers within the profession. Michael Wheelock, Grayback Forestry president, had this to say: “In a normal fire season, you know, this probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal, but this year is ramping up very fast, and every firefighter is going to be needed.”

One of the most trying things about the contracts is that if other companies protest their denial, it holds up more contracts from being reviewed. Many of these crews have been waiting for months for a ruling. Wheelock states that it’s an unfortunate series of events because of the shortage as well as the expenses. “Just to outfit one firefighter is about $1,500. We have to supply radios that are almost $2,000 apiece. Chainsaws, tools, vehicles, insurance, liability insurance. And that all has to be in that price. We are in an age where inflation is a real thing, and there’s a labor shortage, and wages are going up.”

One reason it is so imperative to have a full force is so a wider body of land can be covered. Other states rely on help from other states depending on the size of the fire. In June, retired fire staff officer, Riva Duncan was handling a wildfire in New Mexico. Usually places like this get help from states such as Oregon, Montana, and Colorado but seeing as many contracts have been denied or are in limbo she had this to say: “We had to get an engine all the way from Florida to help here to supplement our resources, and this is very early in fire season. This is really, really showing that we're going to have a real problem come August because that's the peak fire season when many geographic areas are having their largest fires. And so; this is not boding well at all for the peak fire season in August.”

As it stands, many contracts are still awaiting decisions and crews around the midwest scramble to make up the difference.

Leave a comment