HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Amid the smoke and destruction of the
annual Western wildfire season, small business owners find
Ray Christiaens is a caterer in the tiny Montana town of Kevin,
and he worked all of last summer. He's expecting another busy
season because "we've had five years of drought."
Mike Byrnes said the profits he made last year enabled him to
buy new equipment for his portable toilet rental business.
"It's a great way to upgrade your fleet," he said.
The annual fire season in the West has become big business for
hundreds of companies, due in part to the growing number and
ferocity of fires, but also due to changes in health and safety
regulations and a federal push to put more work in private rather
than government hands.
Wildfires burned some 4 million acres in the United States last
year, and the U.S. Forest Service alone spent about $1.2 billion
fighting them, figures from the National Interagency Fire Center in
Boise, Idaho, show.
The Forest Service's Northern Region, comprising Montana,
northern Idaho, slices of Washington and South Dakota, plus
national grasslands in North Dakota, spent $351.4 million on fire
suppression last year, and $196 million of that - about 56 percent
- went to private contractors for services, equipment and
"We've been encouraged to use contractors as much as we can to
shift how we spend money, to stimulate the private sector," said
Paula Nelson, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the regional office
in Missoula. "We look every day at what kind of money we're
spending, and we make economic choices."
Government agencies establish some of the prices for wildfire
services before each season, negotiate others individually and take
"We have a pretty good idea of what we should be paying," said
Alice Forbes, assistant fire director at NIFC. Contracts put up for
bid generally draw 30 to 40 bidders, she said, a response she
considers "good for competition and the government."
Land agencies use their own resources in the initial attack on a
fire, but as it grows, the contractors roll in. Factor in all the
support to keep a major firefighting operation moving and
contractors may be doing more than 90 percent of the work, said
Greg Greenhoe, deputy fire director at the Northern Region office.
The contractor's niche became stronger as environmental
regulations increased, the Forest Service's own work force declined
and homeowners' expectations for fire protection rose as more
houses were built in the woods.
"It's just more labor intensive when you have homes," Greenhoe
said. "You end up with more hand-to-hand combat."
He remembers cooking for himself as a young firefighter in the
early 1970s. Washwater was dumped on the ground and firefighters
bathed in streams, rigged rustic showers from a tank, pipes and
curtains or didn't bathe.
By the end of the '70s, "our shower unit was no longer
appropriate from a health and safety standpoint, and a privacy
standpoint," Greenhoe said.
Private industry has filled the needs. Today a mobile unit with
18 showerheads rents for about $3,000 a day. Mobile kitchens for
fire camps get upward of $40 a day to feed firefighters three
meals. Contractors haul away bath water and rent out truckloads of
Caterers and shower companies came on the scene in the 1970s and
'80s, but the major shift to contractors happened with a big
infusion of private firefighting crews in the 1990s. The Forest
Service's own work force declined in that decade, and 57 percent of
those still on board were 45 or older.
"Quite a few in the Forest Service do fight fires, but some
say, `That's not what I was hired to do and I'm not doing it,"'
The Forest Service still employs seasonal crews, but with
surging demand for those on private payrolls, the country has about
330 twenty-person teams available for hire. NIFC will pay crew
companies about $27 an hour for each firefighter in the Western
region this summer. The crew member must get at least $9.50 of
that, plus overtime.
Expeditors by Lindale Inc., of Redding, Calif., is among the
private companies that benefit from the increase in contract work.
"We had tents strung from one end of Montana to the other last
summer," said Sid Nobles, a company supervisor. Expeditors sends
equipment to fires all over the West, and not just tents with swamp
coolers. The company's line also includes buses to transport fire
crews and mobile laundries to wash clothes at fire camps.
As the fire risk starts to build in New Mexico and Arizona this
spring, Expeditors will be ready to dispatch its equipment and
workers. When the risk spreads to other areas through the summer,
the company will make an educated guess about the next likely hot
spot and move equipment closer for rapid response.
Nobles thinks of fire contractors as a fraternity.
"Everybody knows everybody," he said. "Everybody knows what
everybody else is getting."
Curtis Friede at Kurt's Polaris in Missoula and Seeley Lake said
fire contracts help cover a dent that the fires themselves put in
When public lands are closed and smoke fills the air, people are
unlikely to buy his all-terrain vehicles, which tend to be impulse
purchases, Friede said. Last summer, he leased them for fire work.
"It's just enough (money) to keep things going in the right
direction," Friede said.
On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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Thread: Wildfire Businesses
03-04-2004, 04:48 AM #1
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03-12-2004, 04:55 PM #2
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It seems the wildland fire support industry is getting as big as the wildland fire suppression industry itself.....
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