News Date: 06/20/2008
The U.S. Forest Service was questioned by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in a hearing held Wednesday to assess the agency's readiness for the 2008 fire season. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the committee, expressed his alarm at the apparent lack of needed resources and the inability to keep pace with the increasing number of fire incidents in the last several years. "During the last eight years, we have experienced an average of more than four times as many days where the agencies were at-risk of running out of fire-suppression resources than we did during the previous ten-year period," Bingaman remarked in his opening statement, "These numbers indicate that our preparedness has not kept pace with the dramatic increases in fire activity."
USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey defended the performance of Forest Service and claimed that the agency is fully prepared for the fire season. In response to Bingaman's comments, Rey said that it is not abnormal for 30 to 40% of requests for fire suppression resources to be unfulfilled on days when fire activity is at its peak. He further stated that to have the resources to fill every request through the fire season it would require "double the size of the suppression force, perhaps at twice the cost." He also tried to demonstrate the success of the current force by comparing last years housing losses due to forest fires to the last year California had a long term fire event. More than 2,900 homes were lost in last year's blazes compared to 4,500 homes in 2003.
Testimony from Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, claimed that Rey's statements hid issues like recent shortages in personnel. He stated that changes in classification and educational requirements for high-level firefighters were driving those with experience to other departments or to the private sector.
According to Judd, the lack of experienced firefighters allows the promotion of less experienced line leaders, captains and fire commanders which affects the agency's ability to fight the growing number of fire incidents. Ron Thatcher, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees' Forest Service Council agreed with Judd's testimony and added that morale was another reason firefighters were leaving the agency. "They're saying Why not go take better pay and benefits from someone who might care about me?' " Thatcher approximated the agency to be 20 to 30% under a suitable force level.
Rey addressed the recruitment problem stating that Forest Service will consider changing job titles and adjusting pay rates to remain competitive. He also countered Thatcher's statements and claimed current fire fighting forces are comparable to last years level and that new recruits will be ready in time for the current season. (Contact: Amy Mann or Justin Chambers)
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