CHEWUCH VALLEY, Wash. (AP) - In the past few years, as dry
summers have created tinder-like conditions around the West, scores
of private contractors have tried to get into the lucrative
business of fighting forest fires.
Some have provided excellent training to their workers and have
been a boon to the federal and state governments, which have relied
on them increasingly while downsizing their own crews.
But according to government records cited in a Seattle Times
report, many more of these companies have broken rules, skirted
training requirements and even falsified records, sending
inexperienced men and women into dangerous conditions.
Some companies turned out crews that fell asleep on the fire
lines or couldn't understand commands in English. Other crews
arrived hours late to fires that then ballooned out of control.
"If we don't improve the quality and accountability of this
program, we are going to kill a bunch of firefighters," wrote
Joseph Ferguson, a deputy incident commander for the U.S. Forest
Service, in a memo last November.
The problem is especially concerning in light of the Forest
Service's efforts to improve the safety of its firefighters since
the Thirty Mile Fire near Chelan in 2001, when 14 firefighters and
two campers were trapped and four firefighters were killed.
The number of private 20-person firefighting crews sent by
companies that contract with the government to fight fires around
the nation more than tripled since 1998, from 88 to 301 this year.
About 95 percent of those crews are based in the Northwest.
With a new fire season under way, officials are still working to
weed out contractors and private trainers who cut corners and
endanger their employees or other firefighters. Several private
crew operators are also urging the government to crack down on
problem contractors.
In May, a regional firefighting group including federal and
state agencies took a first-of-its-kind step. It suspended a
Twisp-based contractor from training any more Pacific Northwest
firefighters.
Employees of the contractor, Charles "Bill" Hoskin, told
investigators he put firefighters through a required 32-hour
training course in 12 hours. He was also accused of training
Spanish-speaking firefighters with instructors who spoke only
English, of selling red firefighter ID cards to people he had not
trained, and of giving firefighters bogus fitness tests.
Hoskin, former chief of the Twisp rural volunteer fire
department, has denied all of the allegations.
Last month, Rue Forest Contracting, of Mill City, Ore., agreed
to $25,000 in fines after 23 of its firefighters were found with
forged or phony training credentials. Investigators believe some
were sent to fires with no training at all. The attorney for owner
Larry Rue declined to comment.
The Oregon Department of Forestry oversees fire contractors for
Oregon and Washington under an interagency agreement. Last year, it
cited 45 private crews for various violations and banned 13 from
firefighting for up to a month.
The reasons: Firefighters showed up late to fires, skipped
safety briefings, drank or used drugs at fire camp, engaged in
sexual harassment, had falsified training records or were part of a
crew with no English-speaking leaders, according to the department.
Oregon labor officials, meanwhile, said they were investigating
30 private firefighter-training or pay violations at any one time
last year.
Some contractors hired illegal immigrants and paid them under
the table, or deducted so much for food and incidentals that some
earned only 50 cents in a two-week pay period, according to
Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries. Underage firefighters
"borrowed" Social Security numbers to fake certification.
New rules require crew and squad leaders to speak both English
and the language of the crew. But an internal Forest Service memo
suggested that bilingual leaders on Oregon's Tiller Complex fires
last year appeared to be there mainly for their language skills.
Five crew bosses confessed to not understanding their leadership
responsibilities.
Ferguson, the Forest Service incident commander who wrote the
November memo, complained that Northwest private crews in 2002 were
"the worst we've ever seen."
"Although there were two or three good-to-excellent crews on
each fire, that was offset by 20 to 30 that were hardly worth
having," Ferguson wrote. "It was apparent that training for most
of these crews had been done poorly or not at all."
Private crews typically dig lines, knock down spot fires or burn
areas to reduce fuels. They're supposed to get the same training as
government crews.
"There's a lot of money to be made here, and when there's a lot
of money at stake, people figure out angles," said Scott Coleman,
owner of Oregon's Skookum Reforestation, which for decades has
provided contract crews.
Contractors typically charge the government $22 to $36 an hour
per worker. The contractor buys vehicles, equipment and clothing,
provides training and pays firefighters from $9 to $18 per hour.
Last year, 270 20-person private crews in the Northwest were
paid $91 million. Several companies grossed $1 million apiece.
"Overhead can be enormous, but if you have a good fire season
and get sent out a lot, you bet there's profit in it," said
Coleman, vice president of the National Wildfire Association, which
has pushed to weed out unscrupulous contractors. "But if you don't
train someone well, you're basically endangering his life."
This year, Oregon plans to investigate private crews more
heavily. The state now inspects training classes and expects to
hire new compliance officers.
But much of the training is designed to be self-policing.
Wildfire contractors form associations, which sign agreements
with federal and state agencies. The association then guarantees
that contractors meet regulations.
Of eight such associations, some are vastly more qualified than
others, said Ed Daniels, who oversees Oregon's certification and
training.
Qualifications to form an association: "Thirty-five dollars and
a pen to sign a memorandum of understanding," he told The Times.
Hoskin was president of his association.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)