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Season fuels fire business

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Monday, September 01, 2008


STATEWIDE It was tragic but not surprising that the nine people who died in a helicopter crash in Northern California Aug. 5 were working for a company based in Oregon. The vast majority of the private companies on call to fight wildfires from Florida to Washington state are based in Oregon, and the tragedy served as the latest reminder of just how dangerous this work is.

Wildfire fighting used to be a government job. But rising workers’ compensation claims, falling timber revenues and shrinking budgets compelled the U.S. Forest Service to begin using private crews in the 1980s. This trend accelerated in the late ’90s, with the Oregon Department of Forestry leading the way to privatization. ODF set up a system to oversee a pool of contractors with hourly rates set in advance, awarding contracts based on cost and proximity. The system worked well enough that it went national, and the number of 20-person fire crews registered with the ODF jumped from 62 in 1994 to 175 in 2008, most of them working for Oregon-based companies. Rod Nichols of ODF estimates that up to 4,000 people work as contract firefighters in Oregon.

Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, estimates that 70% of the nation’s private wildfire fighting resources is based in Oregon. That adds up to some serious revenue when you consider that California alone is expected to spend more than $260 million fighting fires this year. The Forest Service is expected to exceed its $1.2 billion budget for private firefighting contracts this season.

This year calls went out early and often to Oregon companies such as GFP Enterprises out of Sisters, which dispatched two crews to Northern California and a third to Big Sur in July. GFP President Don Pollard says he hires about 150 temporary workers each season, most of them men 18 to 30 years old, including college students off for the summer. “They can make a lot of money if they’re needed and if they’re called, and the same goes for us,” says Pollard.

The same also goes for hundreds of businesses such as Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering out of Redmond and “A Team” Wildfire out of Baker City, which provides wild-land fire engines and crews for the Forest Service on an as-needed basis.

Columbia Helicopters, the Aurora-based private company that has been fighting wildfires for decades, supplements its as-needed firefighting work with exclusive-use contracts. By early August Columbia pilots had fought fires in Florida, Virginia, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Columbia VP Todd Petersen says revenues from firefighting are unpredictable. “We’ve had seasons where we hardly made anything and seasons where we grossed $20 million. It depends on the nature of the season, and this is looking like a busy one.”

That should translate into more business for Evergreen Aviation out of McMinnville as well, another wildfire helicopter specialist that also has developed a huge Supertanker firefighting aircraft made from the frame of a Boeing 747.

The enormity of Oregon’s firefighting industry, not to mention the latest firefighting tragedy, has some skeptics questioning whether privatization was a good idea after all. Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, refers to the trend as “The Halliburtonization of fire management: Some people are making a lot of money and the taxpayers are footing the bill.”                                     


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