PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Record numbers of firefighting crews are
pouring into Oregon, attracted by the potential for big payoffs
during heavy firefighting seasons.
The latest figures, made public this week, show that 365 crews
of 20 people each hope to be dispatched to forest and grass fires
this summer. That's a 22 percent increase from a year ago and
roughly four times the crews available in 1998.
Rapid growth has spurred widespread allegations that some
companies and individuals are falsifying training records to allow
underqualified firefighters to advance to leadership positions. It
also has caused the industry to question itself about whether
quality is diluted and whether enough work exists to go around.
"It seems like there's one week a year where they're scrambling
for crews," said Tom Fery, a farm and forest contractor in
Stayton. "Other than that, these guys probably aren't going to be
working. It's really hard to hold a crew together for one or two
weeks of work."
Last year, 90 companies bid for firefighting work. This year,
the number has grown to 97.
Nearly all the companies in the trade are based in Oregon. As
federal timber sales all but disappeared in the 1990s and as the
U.S. Forest Service cut staff, the state's reforestation firms
remade themselves into firefighting companies.
In the record summer of 2002, when 5.8 million acres of the
West's forest and grassland burned, Northwest firefighting
companies earned an estimated $91 million. Estimates for last year
run about half that figure, not including earnings from crews that
helped recover debris from the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
Although almost all the companies are from Oregon, they are
dispatched to fires across the country. A separate federal
contracting system also draws private firefighters from the state.
The state Department of Forestry regulates the Northwest's
contracting business. During the past two years, it has stepped up
its enforcement efforts and training standards, including last year
beefing up prerequisites for the supervising positions of squad
boss and crew boss.
"We had to do something to improve the performance of the
crews, because the quality had just plummeted between 2000 and
2002," said Ed Daniels, who oversees training for the Forestry
Department. "In 2000, we got a lot of letters from fire teams in
Montana, with comments like, 'These are great crews; they worked
very well for us.' In 2002, we received letters like, 'I had 20
crews on my incident, and only three of them were worth anything.
The rest of them were terrible.' "

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)