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As fire threat grows, ranks of firefighters shrink

Western wildfires point out growing problem as young workers focus on

When California Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of wildfire emergency in portions of the Golden State last week, his calls for help were met by a frantic response in Boise, Idaho.

Normally, the National Interagency Fire Center here would have had a legion of seasoned smokejumpers ready to descend on the conflagration, swathed in Nomex suits and armed with their Pulaski shovels. This summer, however, the ranks of firefighters have been seriously depleted.

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"[We're] already stretched to the limit," says Ed Shepard, a spokesman for the fire center, which had to mobilize crews from Alaska and the Southeast, as well as call on the National Guard.

These firefighters have now begun to contain many of the fires across the West, but many observers worry that this season's problems only portend a crisis in coming years: a shortage of federal firefighters.

Increasingly, young Forest Service workers are not fighting fires - opting instead to concentrate on their other jobs and stay closer to home. In turn, the number of new recruits is failing to keep pace with the numbers of elite firefighters lost to retirement. At a time when fire managers are predicting bigger, more intense wildfires, the growing shortage could have a profound effect on the nation's ability to protect its people and property.

As of last week, almost 69,000 different fires had been reported this year in the US, and more than 4 million acres had burned - almost twice the number of acres normally scorched by late August.

Now, with the West moving into the peak of wildfire season and the East still struggling against drought, a new report to Congress has identified 39 million acres of Western national forests that "are at high risk to catastrophic wildfire."

In addition, the report, issued by the General Accounting Office, says the nation's ability to respond to such epic forest fires is increasingly compromised by the aging and reduced fitness level of America's firefighting corps.

Firefighting: past and present

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The topic of wildfire preparedness has been especially timely this summer for other reasons, too. In early August, the Forest Service observed the 50th anniversary of the legendary Mann Gulch Fire in Montana, which killed 13 smoke jumpers and ushered the agency into the modern area of firefighting.

"The equipment, safety measures, and understanding of wildfire behavior that buffer these firefighters from potential disasters can be traced back to the lessons learned from tragedies such as Mann Gulch," said Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.

Yet even Mr. Dombeck acknowledges the irony of such a tribute at a time when firefighter ranks are growing thin.

Traditionally, employment with the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management automatically meant firefighting training.

"It was just assumed that you would fight fires during the summer," says Mr. Shepard, who went into civil service as a forester a quarter-century ago. "But times have changed."

A number of factors play into the trend. The downsizing of federal agencies has shrunk the available pool of firefighter candidates. Fewer young agency workers are receiving wildfire training in college. And the rise of dual-wage-earning families has meant that spouses who had previously traveled long distances to work the fire lines for extra income are now staying close to home.

Moreover, quirks in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act also reward less-experienced firefighters over veterans.

"When an incident commander is sent out on a fire, he or she might be working long hours and overseeing hundreds of firefighters, but because of how the federal pay scale works, he or she might be making less money than the guy who drives lunches out to the fire line," Shepard says. "We're seeing some of our best people leaving the ranks."

Another problem for the Forest Service is that the agency can't afford communication systems to make its firefighting more effective and safer for employees on the ground.

These personnel challenges take on broader meaning when placed in the context of how much of the landscape is susceptible to burning. Recognizing the scope of the problem two years ago, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt unveiled a campaign called Fight Fire with Fire, which involves lighting strategic small fires to reduce the amount of dead trees and cured grasses likely to burn.

"To restore the health, character, and structure of our forests, the obvious first step is to bring back their own ancient predator: wildland fire," Mr. Babbitt said.

But so far that's been easier said than done. The threat of wildfire has opened a new set of social issues as more people build homes in wooded areas near national forests.

It has forced federal agencies like the Forest Service to spend a disproportionate amount of firefighting funds defending homes and human property, away from more remote landscapes where forest-fire management is sorely needed.

"The dilemma we face with wildfire management is the most significant challenges now and for the next several decades ahead of us," says Christopher Wood, a senior policy adviser to the Forest Service's Dombeck. "The urgency has increased as more Americans move from cities to the fringes of national forests, where they put themselves and their property at risk to fires."

Lesson learned?

Eleven years ago, the benefits and dangers of wildfires seized worldwide attention when nearly 800,000 acres burned in the Yellowstone region. More than $120 million in tax dollars were spent battling the summer infernos. The fire may have helped park ecology, but the ensuing outcry over the blackening of Yellowstone resulted in a new, more cautious national attitude toward battling fire.

Prior to 1988, the National Park Service was limiting wildfire hazards by burning between 40,000 and 50,000 acres every year, mostly in small, easily controlled "prescribed" fires.

Today, the Park Service burns about 10,000 acres a year, even though the risk remains high.

Why? Some critics say it's because officials worry about fires getting out of hand. "For a prescribed fire to meet its objectives, it has to be large enough, yet when it reaches a certain size, managers can't guarantee they can put them out," says Robert Ekey, a regional director of The Wilderness Society. "The underlying message is: 'Don't let another Yellowstone happen on your watch.' "

As a result, some members of Congress have rekindled the debate over "salvage logging" - a process that many environmentalists deride as damaging to watersheds and wildlife habitat. Salvage logging would make forests less vulnerable to fires by allowing companies to log dead and dying timber.

But equally as important as clearing off old timber, says Mr. Wood, is making sure that federal agencies possess the expertise to confront the tasks that await. And that requires increased fire research as well as more firefighter recruitment.

"It took a century's worth of fire suppression to get us into this mess, and it will take a while before we get ourselves out of it," Wood says. "But the longer we wait, the fewer options we have."

no farther: A crew of firefighters in Victorville, Calif., digs a fire line in an attempt to control one of the 19 fires that was burning across the West this weekend.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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