Contract crews play key role in 2013 fire season
If the summer wildfire season seemed especially busy, the numbers bear it out: the contract fire crews of the Pacific Northwest logged more than 4,700 crew days on 98 wildfires in 2013.
The 20-person hand crews — most of them based in Oregon — fought fire in seven western states. Equipped with shovels and Pulaskis, the yellow-shirted firefighters dug and scraped mile upon mile of containment line to stop the spread of fast-moving fires through the forest.
The wildfire agencies of Oregon and Washington began the season with 168 20-person crews on their contract, known as the Interagency Firefighting Crew Agreement. But demand exceeded supply and they added 17 more at the end of July. Ninety contract crews were deployed just on the Douglas Complex fires in Southern Oregon.
“Having these trained crews available, fully equipped and ready to be at a fire within short notice, is a very valuable resource for government,” said Cindy Beck, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s contract services unit coordinator. “Due to the large fire activity in Oregon this year, the crews exceeded the normal 14-day assignments, and continuously received favorable performance reviews.”
ODF developed the original agreement in the late 1980s, when downsizing in Oregon’s timber industry resulted in fewer woods workers and federal agency personnel available to fight fire. Other state and federal wildfire agencies in Washington and Oregon subsequently joined the agreement.
Though the Department of Forestry administers the interagency crew agreement, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies have used the crews more extensively in the past. But in 2013, forestlands protected by ODF appeared in the crosshairs for lightning, and the state agency logged 3,214 contract crew days on 30 fires across its jurisdiction.
During a moderate fire season, Beck frequently gets calls from contractors, asking why their crews haven’t been dispatched yet. Lack of work was not the case this summer, and the industry stepped up to meet the need.
“In Oregon well over 40 percent of the fire resources that are available come from the professional private fire industry,” said Deborah Miley, executive director of the Lyons, Oregon-based National Wildfire Suppression Association. “These resources provide a highly qualified and trained workforce that has a shared goal to complete the mission and ensure that all of our firefighters go home.”