June 23, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ted Kramer

and Alice Perry Linker

The Observer

Fighting wildfires isn't solely the work of government firefighters anymore. Privately employed crews frequently bolster the lines at fires.

"When we're talking firefighters, they are firefighters whether they are Forest Service or contracted,'' said Miles Hancock of the Northeast Oregon Fire Dispatch Center at the Union County Airport. "We don't treat contracted crews any differently.''

And all firefighters feel the pain and grief when any firefighter is killed or injured, Hancock said. The Grayback Forestry crew that was headed to the Hayman fire in Colorado was dispatched through the Northeast Oregon dispatch center.

"Colorado puts a call in and we mobilize them to the fire,'' Hancock said.

The training for contract firefighters is the same as that for type II firefighters employed by the Forest Service, said David Widmark of the Northwest Coordination Center Information Desk.

"We're a combination of nine state and federal agencies creating one homogeneous team," Widmark said. "We're a very cohesive union."

Before a firefighter goes on the line, he or she must have an interagency red card, showing specific training.

"Everybody gets a red card," said La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann. "To get a red card you have to meet training requirements. They (private contractors) have to attend the same training we do (for type II crews)."

Hot shot training is more extensive.

Grayback is one of the larger private contractors, with offices in Merlin, John Day and La Grande. The company is contracted through the Oregon Department of Forestry, but is dispatched on an interagency basis, Hancock said.

Grayback is just one of several contractors the dispatch center can draw from when the need arises.

"We've been using contract crews for 20-plus years, and in that 20-year period, the use has increased," said La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann.

Although Wiedenmann said he doesn't know the exact percentages, he estimated that probably about 40 percent of firefighting crews are contract.

"They're a substantial component of any firefighting," he said.

The accident that claimed the lives of four firefighters occurred on Interstate 70 in Colorado when the van in which 11 were riding went off the road and rolled four times.

Wiedenmann said the accident was the first involving La Grande firefighters in a number of years. A van transporting Union Hot Shots rolled "probably more than 10 years ago," he said.

As far as transportation rules are concerned, "I can only speak for the Forest Service," Wiedenmann said. The Forest Service requires drivers of the hot shot vehicles to be commercially licensed and governed by national rules that require a rest after four hours of driving.

"We adhere to those requirements very strictly," Wiedenmann said.

At one time, when the fire center received a call late in the afternoon, "you'd load up your crew and drive all night. We don't do that anymore," he said.

"Now if we get a call at 4 p.m., we say, ‘Get ready to leave at 5 a.m.,' or we might let them drive four hours in the evening and stop for the night," he said.

The Northeast Oregon center can call upon five 20-person Grayback crews, four crews from Mountain Forestry Inc. of Idaho, two from A. Torres Reforestation of Milton-Freewater, and one each one from Torres Contracting of Hermiston and R&R Contracting of Hermiston.

Combined with the Forest Service type II crews and La Grande and Union hot shots, the center has about 250 firefighters it can send to fires. The center also has 60 contracted engines and tenders available.

The return of 50 firefighters to La Grande following the accident has not severely affected the ability of the interagency center to dispatch to existing fires, said the fire center's Widmark.

Even with the blazes in Arizona and Colorado, there appear to be enough teams to meet the current need. Widmark said that neither the National Guard nor active military have been called out to the fires.

"We're doing fine," Widmark said. "We are holding back crews in the Northwest — not making them available to existing fires to protect ourselves."

Widmark said that fire conditions are "similar to last year, especially in Eastern Oregon," and the crews could be needed.