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  • Private Fire Crews

    CHEWUCH VALLEY, Wash. (AP) - In the past few years, as dry
    summers have created tinder-like conditions around the West, scores
    of private contractors have tried to get into the lucrative
    business of fighting forest fires.
    Some have provided excellent training to their workers and have
    been a boon to the federal and state governments, which have relied
    on them increasingly while downsizing their own crews.
    But according to government records cited in a Seattle Times
    report, many more of these companies have broken rules, skirted
    training requirements and even falsified records, sending
    inexperienced men and women into dangerous conditions.
    Some companies turned out crews that fell asleep on the fire
    lines or couldn't understand commands in English. Other crews
    arrived hours late to fires that then ballooned out of control.
    "If we don't improve the quality and accountability of this
    program, we are going to kill a bunch of firefighters," wrote
    Joseph Ferguson, a deputy incident commander for the U.S. Forest
    Service, in a memo last November.
    The problem is especially concerning in light of the Forest
    Service's efforts to improve the safety of its firefighters since
    the Thirty Mile Fire near Chelan in 2001, when 14 firefighters and
    two campers were trapped and four firefighters were killed.
    The number of private 20-person firefighting crews sent by
    companies that contract with the government to fight fires around
    the nation more than tripled since 1998, from 88 to 301 this year.
    About 95 percent of those crews are based in the Northwest.
    With a new fire season under way, officials are still working to
    weed out contractors and private trainers who cut corners and
    endanger their employees or other firefighters. Several private
    crew operators are also urging the government to crack down on
    problem contractors.
    In May, a regional firefighting group including federal and
    state agencies took a first-of-its-kind step. It suspended a
    Twisp-based contractor from training any more Pacific Northwest
    firefighters.
    Employees of the contractor, Charles "Bill" Hoskin, told
    investigators he put firefighters through a required 32-hour
    training course in 12 hours. He was also accused of training
    Spanish-speaking firefighters with instructors who spoke only
    English, of selling red firefighter ID cards to people he had not
    trained, and of giving firefighters bogus fitness tests.
    Hoskin, former chief of the Twisp rural volunteer fire
    department, has denied all of the allegations.
    Last month, Rue Forest Contracting, of Mill City, Ore., agreed
    to $25,000 in fines after 23 of its firefighters were found with
    forged or phony training credentials. Investigators believe some
    were sent to fires with no training at all. The attorney for owner
    Larry Rue declined to comment.
    The Oregon Department of Forestry oversees fire contractors for
    Oregon and Washington under an interagency agreement. Last year, it
    cited 45 private crews for various violations and banned 13 from
    firefighting for up to a month.
    The reasons: Firefighters showed up late to fires, skipped
    safety briefings, drank or used drugs at fire camp, engaged in
    sexual harassment, had falsified training records or were part of a
    crew with no English-speaking leaders, according to the department.
    Oregon labor officials, meanwhile, said they were investigating
    30 private firefighter-training or pay violations at any one time
    last year.
    Some contractors hired illegal immigrants and paid them under
    the table, or deducted so much for food and incidentals that some
    earned only 50 cents in a two-week pay period, according to
    Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries. Underage firefighters
    "borrowed" Social Security numbers to fake certification.
    New rules require crew and squad leaders to speak both English
    and the language of the crew. But an internal Forest Service memo
    suggested that bilingual leaders on Oregon's Tiller Complex fires
    last year appeared to be there mainly for their language skills.
    Five crew bosses confessed to not understanding their leadership
    responsibilities.
    Ferguson, the Forest Service incident commander who wrote the
    November memo, complained that Northwest private crews in 2002 were
    "the worst we've ever seen."
    "Although there were two or three good-to-excellent crews on
    each fire, that was offset by 20 to 30 that were hardly worth
    having," Ferguson wrote. "It was apparent that training for most
    of these crews had been done poorly or not at all."
    Private crews typically dig lines, knock down spot fires or burn
    areas to reduce fuels. They're supposed to get the same training as
    government crews.
    "There's a lot of money to be made here, and when there's a lot
    of money at stake, people figure out angles," said Scott Coleman,
    owner of Oregon's Skookum Reforestation, which for decades has
    provided contract crews.
    Contractors typically charge the government $22 to $36 an hour
    per worker. The contractor buys vehicles, equipment and clothing,
    provides training and pays firefighters from $9 to $18 per hour.
    Last year, 270 20-person private crews in the Northwest were
    paid $91 million. Several companies grossed $1 million apiece.
    "Overhead can be enormous, but if you have a good fire season
    and get sent out a lot, you bet there's profit in it," said
    Coleman, vice president of the National Wildfire Association, which
    has pushed to weed out unscrupulous contractors. "But if you don't
    train someone well, you're basically endangering his life."
    This year, Oregon plans to investigate private crews more
    heavily. The state now inspects training classes and expects to
    hire new compliance officers.
    But much of the training is designed to be self-policing.
    Wildfire contractors form associations, which sign agreements
    with federal and state agencies. The association then guarantees
    that contractors meet regulations.
    Of eight such associations, some are vastly more qualified than
    others, said Ed Daniels, who oversees Oregon's certification and
    training.
    Qualifications to form an association: "Thirty-five dollars and
    a pen to sign a memorandum of understanding," he told The Times.
    Hoskin was president of his association.

    (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

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