Season fuels fire business

| Print |  Email
Monday, September 01, 2008

Fire

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.”                                     

BEN JACKLET


Have an opinion? E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

More Articles

Announcing the date of the 100 Best Green Workplaces in Oregon event

News
Friday, March 20, 2015
OBM-100-best-Green-logo-2015-250pxwBY OB STAFF

Join us to celebrate and network with Oregon’s best green workplaces!


Read more...

Oregon Business expands events portfolio

The Latest
Friday, March 27, 2015
htctfacebookBY OB STAFF

New events series brings magazine to life.


Read more...

Opening soon: 3 of the coolest new breweries in Oregon

The Latest
Thursday, March 19, 2015
brewthumbBY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

There are 278 companies licensed to operate as brewery, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Here are three new beer-making hubs slated to open soon.


Read more...

6 highlights from the Craft Brewers Conference

The Latest
Friday, April 17, 2015
thumbPHOTOS BY  JASON E. KAPLAN

The 32nd annual CBC attracted a record number of attendees (11,000)  to the Oregon Convention Center.


Read more...

5 ways successful people kickstart the day

The Latest
Thursday, April 02, 2015
coffeethumbBY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

Are mornings the most productive part of the day?  We ask five successful executives how they get off to a good start.


Read more...

On the Road

April 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER

My daughter turned 18 last week, and for her birthday I got her a Car2Go membership. Not to label myself a disruptor or anything, but it felt like a groundbreaking moment. The two of us, mother and child, were participating in a new teen rite of passage: Instead of handing over the car keys, I handed over a car-sharing card — with the caveat that she not use the gift as her own personal car service.


Read more...

The Road to Reinvention

April 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
BY AMY MILSHTEIN

Damian Smith bets on changing himself — and Portland — through consulting.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS