Forest Service to hire thousands of firefighters

In the wake of this summer's record fire season, the Forest Service has received funds from Congress to fill up to 3,500 new positions, allowing the agency to increase its firefighting force for the first time since President Clinton took office. The new jobs will provide the Forest Service with the full complement of firefighters it needs, said agency chief Mike Dombeck. For the last several years, the Forest Service's firefighting capacity has fallen well short of peak levels, according to Lyle Laverty, coordinator of the Forest Service's National Fire Plan. "Our capacity has been below 70 percent nationally, and below 60 percent in some regions," said Laverty. The majority of the new firefighters will be seasonal employees who will work during the six-month fire season; approximately 1,000 of the new positions will be full time. Traditionally, the Forest Service relies heavily on seasonal workers to staff its firefighting programs. In May 1999, almost 49 percent of the Forest Service's technical workforce, which includes firefighters, was non-permanent, according to a 1999 study by the National Academy of Public Administration. The NAPA study concluded that the firefighting program was understaffed and falling behind in its effort to recruit younger staff members. That resulted in a workforce that is older, on average, than the rest of the Forest Service. Following this summer's severe fires, President Clinton called for the creation of a National Fire Plan to improve agencies' firefighting capabilities. The Forest Service received $1.1 billion in additional funding when Congress approved the plan this fall. Attracting young workers is a top priority of the new hiring initiative, according to Laverty. "If you look at the age profile of our employees, we're facing an incredible period of change within the next five years," Laverty says. "Our personnel folks have gone to colleges and used creative marketing to let people know we actually have jobs." The additional firefighters should enable the Forest Service to control more fires before they expand beyond the critical "initial attack" phase, Laverty says. "We put out 98 percent of fires within [the] initial attack [zone] this year ... the ones that get outside of initial attack cause acres to burn. Staffing at this [optimum] level gives us an opportunity to reduce fire loss and damage." The Forest Service works in tandem with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in addition to state, local and tribal governments to combat fires. During this summer's historic fires, however, the Forest Service was forced to ask for help from other agencies to meet its firefighting obligations. "We didn't have enough resources," Laverty says. "Even in a normal year, we still would have been behind."
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