By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
Associated Press Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A proposal to hold state fire wardens to
more exacting physical standards could thin the ranks of the
volunteers who have helped forest rangers fight wildfires since the
late 1800s.
The goal outlined by the state Department of Conservation is to
have about 200 wardens by 2007, assigned to New York's 106 rangers
around the state depending on need, said Andy Jacob, head of DEC's
ranger division.
Wardens would have to take the 44-hour federal wildland
firefighting course and annually pass a test in which they must
carry a 45-pound pack three miles in less than 45 minutes.
"It's our expectation that we'll be taking the very informal
fire warden system of the past and turning it into a formal
program," Jacob said. "It's basically for the safety of both our
volunteers and rangers."
The number of wardens has steadily dropped over the years and
longtime wardens worry the demanding physical test could further
deplete the ranks and erase useful knowledge gained from decades of
experience.
"When I first came on board, there were probably 3,000 or so in
the state," said 59-year-old Ed Robbins, president of the New York
Fire Wardens Association. "And now we're down to just a few
hundred ... When you've got trained people who've been around for
years, you need to keep them."
Jacob, who himself was a fire warden in 1975 at age 18, says
fewer are needed now. The long-term trend in the number of fires is
down, equipment and communications have improved and most fires are
extinguished in several hours. Local fire departments often have
primary responsibility.
The DEC recorded 1,200 forest fires statewide in 1965, compared
to 460 in 2001.
But Robbins, also a member of the South Glens Falls Fire
Company, said the wardens do jobs like baby-sit stubborn woodland
fires overnight, so local volunteers can return home and protect
their towns. On big fires, wardens have directed crews of untrained
civilians, he said. They are paid $3 an hour.
After recently sending out 300 to 400 questionnaires to wardens
on the state list, the DEC got responses from about 75 interested
in continuing in the new program, Jacob said. The Nature
Conservancy, with personnel who manage prescribed fires on its
wilderness holdings, is another likely source of wardens, he said.
The training and equipment cost about $500 per person, Jacob
said.
Robbins said the wardens association still meets and members go
to fires, though the state has stopped renewing their warden cards.
They were renewable every three years.
"I don't know if we're still fire wardens or not. They haven't
told us," he said.
The DEC is in the process of developing protocols and setting
standards for wardens, DEC spokeswoman Gabrielle Done said.
Wardens all take courses in subjects such as wildfire
suppression and search and rescue, Robbins said.
"I always called us unpaid professionals," he said.
Some of the younger wardens would likely pass the physical test
but Robbins said older ones could still operate radios, handle
paperwork and direct people. Rangers agree there will be a
logistics role for those veterans.
But the work-capacity test could keep them from getting a new
warden card. Adopted in 1998, firefighters must pass it to
volunteer to fight wildfires in Western states.
"It's to identify if a firefighter is fit for wildland duty,"
Jacob said. "Basically it mimics field conditions."
Candidates must sign a waiver saying they are fit enough to take
the test, Jacob said. Some have died from the exertion of the test
itself.
Richard Requa, who retired last November as a forest ranger in
Saratoga County after 27 years, said he called on nearly 40 wardens
- most active in their local fire departments, trained and with
their own equipment. "The system worked for an awful long time,"
he said.
"Some of the older guys were retired," he said. "That was
great. They were my backbone, really. Some of them were on the head
of the fire with me, and some of them weren't."
Requa said in the daytime, the other volunteer firefighters were
working and couldn't afford to leave their jobs.
Over time he learned what each warden could do and who might be
available when. Some climbed mountains with him to put out fires.
Some brought supplies, handled communications, ran the pump. They
knew the local roads, trails and other information.
Requa, now a member of the wardens association, wasn't sure all
the state's rangers could pass the pack test - required only if
they volunteer to help fight Western fires - or even if he could,
though at 57 he's about to take a black belt test in karate.
"It's going to wipe them out," he said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)