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Firefighting business is volatile

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011


Miller Timber fire crew workers Matteo Gouveia (left), Anselmo Salgado and Alejandro Ayala dig up and douse hot spots while working the edge of the Shadow Lake Fire near the Big Lake Youth Camp on Sept. 6.
Photo by Pete Erickson, courtesy The Bulletin

The wildfire season went from dormant to red hot in a matter of weeks in late summer, when a surge of blazes from Dollar Lake to Hell’s Canyon sparked a full-scale mobilization. Thousands of firefighters responded to protect property and natural resources including the Bull Run Watershed, source of Portland’s drinking water.

The crews performed admirably, but their industry is in deep trouble. A record snow-pack year preceded by early rains last fall made for 11 months of down time after one of the slowest seasons on record in 2010. “Going into September it was a quarter to midnight for a lot of people in our industry,” says Don Pollard, president of GFP Enterprises in Sisters. “A lot of folks who have invested a lot of money are hurting. Our industry association did a poll in August and about half of our members were either getting out of the business or were thinking of getting out.”

That was before lightning strikes sparked raging fires near the Warm Springs Reservation Aug. 26, initiating a complex of fires in the Cascades that put more than 2,000 people to work. Then came a blaze east of Hood River that threatened the Bull Run Watershed. Suddenly, even the most troubled firefighting operations had all the work they could handle.

“There was absolutely no work until the last week of August,” says Rick Dice, president of PatRick Environmental and president of the National Wildfire Suppression Association. “It was tough to hold crews together. Then all of a sudden it hits the fan, and they need everything you’ve got. It would be like having a factory completely shut down end expecting it cranked up within an hour.”

These are not ideal conditions for running a business, especially with lenders clamping down on credit. Industry veterans are lobbying federal and state agencies to set aside more off-season contracts for non-emergency projects to keep companies stable and healthy for when they are needed. It’s an issue of particular significance in Oregon, home to about two thirds of the nation’s private wildfire fighting resources.

About 4,000 contract firefighters work in the industry statewide, and local businesses such as Evergreen Aviation and Columbia Helicopter win contracts fighting fires both in and outside of Oregon. “We need to bring some stability and certainty to the industry,” says Dice. “We’ve been talking to all the agencies about this. It’s a long process but they are listening.”

Ben Jacklet


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