Thread: Pay Disparities-Wildland FF's
04-24-2002, 12:15 AM #1
Pay Disparities-Wildland FF's
Seems to be a problem here....ya think?
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Tom Steichen is the guy to have around
when a wildfire bears down on houses.
The Douglas County Fire District chief's resume includes five
years battling forest fires, followed by 22 years of fighting house
and brush fires.
When Steichen responds under a state program used to amass
firefighters and equipment in communities threatened by wildfire,
he is frequently a strike team supervisor, earning $17.20 an hour.
But other fire departments and districts charge far more. An
investigation by The Spokesman-Review found large disparities in
what fire districts charge under the Statewide Fire Mobilization
Cities and fire districts have billed the state more than $5
million to cover their costs for sending crews and equipment to the
13 fires fought under the plan in 2001.
Last year, while working the Icicle Creek fire near Leavenworth,
Steichen earned $17.20 an hour for his first 40 hours. After that,
he went on overtime, at the hourly rate of $25.80.
A strike-team leader from Clark County billed $46.05 an hour for
his first 16 hours and $69.08 thereafter, state records show.
One from Marysville worked 88 hours, all at the overtime rate of
$54.11 an hour. Another, from Pierce County, billed 57 hours at the
overtime rate of $70.28 an hour.
Equally qualified firefighters doing the same work at the same
Washington wildfire can earn hourly wages that vary more than 300
percent, the newspaper found.
Everyone seems to agree the efforts are effective. The
firefighters are credited with saving houses in places like Omak,
Brewster and Tonasket.
"You can't compare money to saving lives and resources," said
Dick Gormley, chief of Spokane County Fire District 10, on the West
But Gormley and others agree the system could be more
Steichen stops getting paid when he sits down to eat or lies
down to sleep. He earns nothing while driving from his home to the
scene of the fire. He's paid only for the hours he actually works.
Nearly all career firefighters bill from the time they leave
their home stations until the time they return.
Steichen said he enjoys the work and is satisfied with his pay.
He doesn't begrudge the career firefighters their pay.
"I just don't understand how the state can afford it," he
Members of the state Fire Defense Board, which oversees the
mobilization plan, said they're bothered by the costs.
"It's discussed every year, and we try to keep the costs down"
by ordering the most appropriate equipment and sending the
high-paid firefighters home first, said Wayne Barnhart, a fire
chief from Douglas County. "Everybody knows it's getting too
But nobody knows how to end the pay inequities.
No firefighter is forced to go to a mobilization. Many would not
bother if the state adopted uniform wages that are lower than their
regular pay, officials predict.
The Legislature passed the mobilization act - introduced by
then-Rep. George Orr, a Spokane Valley Democrat and firefighter -
A fire chief can request a mobilization when local resources are
overwhelmed and lives, homes or businesses are at risk. It must be
approved by Maj. General Timothy Lowenberg, who oversees emergency
management and other divisions of the state Military Department.
The state has approved 43 mobilizations since 1994, for a
combined cost of at least $12 million.
Records for some fires are incomplete, so the state's total
payout is unknown. Nor has the Emergency Management Division
compiled the post-fire reports required by the act.
Most cities and districts say their bills to the state just
cover the cost of responding to mobilizations.
Fire District 3 in Chelan County billed the state $31,362 for
equipment and salaries during the Icicle Creek mobilization.
Chelan County Fire Chief Doug DeVore said he called the
mobilization that brought 46 trucks into Leavenworth.
"We had a lot of houses that were threatened if the fire came
down off the mountain," he said. "We needed all those BRTs" -
DeVore's term for "bright red trucks."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press
04-24-2002, 10:23 AM #2
Which is exactly why in our state the rates are set in our mobilization plan each year and apply across the board.
The rates are reviewed each winter prior to the plan being
signed for the upcoming year.
04-24-2002, 07:25 PM #3
- Join Date
- Feb 2002
- Yakima, WA
some other news from spokane
Fire rules: State would rather fight than switch
Laws free up money to battle blazes but don't make homes less flammable
Dan Hansen - Staff writer
Ten years ago, Washington lawmakers put state taxpayers on the hook for more spending to protect houses built among the pines.
But they rejected a related proposal that could have eased the cost and saved some homes that have burned in the meantime.
The Statewide Fire Mobilization Plan, which is used to amass firefighters from across the state in communities threatened by wildfires, cost taxpayers more than $5 million in 2001. Crews and equipment converged on 13 Eastern Washington communities threatened by wildfires.
State and federal agencies that weren't part of those mobilizations spent more than $108 million fighting Washington fires.
Fire officials say the cost wouldn't be quite so high -- and their task wouldn't be quite so difficult -- if people moving into the woods would take simple precautions and use responsible building practices like those the Legislature rejected.
President Bush acknowledged the difficulty houses present to wild land firefighters in his budget proposal for 2003.
"In some Western areas, the government pays more in suppressing fires than the fair-market value of the structures threatened by those fires," the president's budget states. "It would literally be cheaper to let the fires burn and pay 100 percent of the rebuilding costs."
No one proposes doing that. Nor does Washington discourage people from building in the path of fire, as it does in areas prone to other common disasters, such as floods or landslides.
Local governments have been slow to require steps that everyone agrees would improve fire safety: better roads through subdivisions, the elimination of flammable shake roofs, the clearing of trees around homes, for instance.
In 1992, while selling the Legislature on the mobilization act, the Washington State Association of Fire Chiefs also asked lawmakers to impose minimum fire standards for new homes in the so-called "wildland interface," where woods and neighborhoods meet. The proposal later was softened, to require counties to come up with minimum standards of their own.
Testifying in 1992, Chief Steve Wrightson of Clark County Fire District 3 urged the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee to endorse the bill. Like all committee hearings, the discussion was captured on audio tape.
"We have no control over some of the fire issues that are being created, such as flammable roofs, vegetation being left around homes, that sort of thing," Wrightson said.
But while the Legislature approved the mobilization act, the fire-prevention bill died. Committee members argued it would infringe on private property rights and place an undue burden on rural counties. Developers argued the regulations would add to the cost of homes.
"This bill isn't going to make one iota of difference" because there were already so many houses built into the woods, then-Sen. Scott Barr, R-Colville, argued at the time.
Homes not protected
Most -- if not all -- of the nine houses that burned last Aug. 13 near Omak, Wash., were built since Barr spoke those words. Their owners failed to take some basic fire-prevention steps, such as clearing yards of brush and pruning the bottom branches of nearby trees, said Connie Humphrey, chief deputy for the Okanogan County Sheriff's Department.
Neighboring houses that were better prepared for fires weren't destroyed, even if they were scorched, said Humphrey, whose duties include emergency management coordination.
Chief Wayne Barnhart of Douglas County Fire District 2 said homeowners in neighboring Chelan County haven't changed their ways, even after 1994 wildfires burned more than 30 homes.
"The people went right back and put up (replacement) houses and they didn't do anything more to protect them," said Barnhart, a member of the state's Fire Defense Board. "You'd think if you were burned out once, you'd do it better the next time."
The Legislature's rejection of rules requiring fire-resistent building techniques still gnaws at George Orr, a Spokane Valley firefighter who was a state representative at the time.
"You always hear people say, `I'm tired of big government,"' Orr said in a recent interview. "Well, they're real glad to see it when these red fire trucks are coming down the road."
Spurred to action
Left to their own devices, counties have taken a variety of views toward fire preventative regulations.
Spokane County officials vowed to adopt tougher standards after the Hangman Hills fire burned 24 houses in 1987. That still hadn't happened four years later, when the 1991 firestorm burned more than 100 houses.
Spurred by the second disaster, the county took action, said Jim Manson, county director of building and planning. Roads into new developments get more scrutiny, Manson said, and rules allow shake roofs only if they've been pressure-treated with fire-resistant chemicals. Multistory houses must be spaced farther apart in subdivisions, to avoid the risk of fire spreading.
Spokane County does not require that owners maintain open areas around their homes. In a pamphlet about country life, called "The Law of the West," the county recommends homeowners take that step.
Chelan County, which has traditionally spurned land-use regulations, now requires non-combustible roofing materials and minimum distances between houses, said planning director Larry Angel. Yakima County adopted minimum standards a couple of years ago, said Deputy Chief Allen Walker of Yakima County Fire District 5.
Stevens County officials considered, then rejected, minimum-distance requirements several years ago.
State and federal taxpayers spent millions of dollars last year protecting remote homes in Ferry and Okanogan counties; neither has building regulations aimed at reducing the risk.
"There are some places here, in a canyon or a draw, where people are putting their houses, and it's just like putting them in a chimney," said Okanogan County Commissioner Dave Schultz, a volunteer firefighter.
"We have several (subdivisions) where the road in will not accommodate the necessary fire equipment," Schultz said. "And on top of that, it's one-way access."
The county has applied for grants to study the issue. Schultz said he expects many of his neighbors will fight any new regulations. Nonetheless, Schultz said, he will push for road standards, at the very least.
"I'd be very slothful if I didn't say, you're going to have to have better access," he said.
That marks a change for Schultz, who has opposed most government regulations during 10 years as commissioner and 17 prior years as a planning commissioner.
Relying on taxpayers
When owners fail to protect their homes, the responsibility falls on government, at taxpayer expense. Some high-salaried firefighters called to protect communities during wildfires spend their time taking the kind of preventative measures the Legislature refused to mandate.
Last August, at the Rex Creek Fire near Chelan, firefighters pruned trees and cleared pine needles off roofs and out of gutters, said Chief Walker.
"We beautified their homes, is what we did," he said.
Now, government is taking a more direct approach, using taxpayer money to send in crews to do the work for rural homeowners and communities before fires bear down on them. Bush's budget proposes spending $229 million to continue that work, which started after fires two years ago burned 7 million acres and 861 structures, mostly in the West.
About $2.5 million of federal money went toward such efforts in Washington last year. The state Department of Natural Resources recently invited Loon Lake homeowners to apply for grants to help clear out storm-downed trees that increase the fire danger. Traditionally, they'd get no help with that work.
Fire chiefs say such efforts, while expensive, should ultimately reduce the cost of fighting fires. But there's only so much government can do, said Jim Graue, assistant chief of Fire District 9, in northern Spokane County.
"You can have all the programs in the world, but ultimately it's up to the landowner," Graue said.
•Dan Hansen can be reached at (509) 459-3938 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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