Fire Drill

Panicked by last summer's record blazes, lawmakers ignited an eight-month hiring frenzy at land agencies.

T he city of Reno smelled like a pair of jeans laid too long next to a campfire. The air was tinged with ash and dense smoke draped the city's high-rise casinos. A wildfire eight miles to the southwest had burned more than 14,000 acres of pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush and mountain mahogany from June 17 to June 21. The Martis fire, named after the wilderness area where it started, became, to that point, the largest wildfire of the 2001 season. But federal officials were preparing for the possibility of even bigger blazes this summer.

Last year's fire season was the worst in four decades, leaving 8.4 million acres scorched and igniting a national debate about the adequacy of federal fire prevention. Determined to prevent another summer of devastation, legislators showered five federal land management agencies with money. They more than doubled the annual firefighting appropriation-from $ 1.4 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.9 billion for fiscal 2001. The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service devised a fire prevention plan that would require them to hire, train and equip at least 6,000 new fire employees between October, when the funding bill took effect, and the start of the 2001 fire season in June. The frantic hiring needed to boost the federal firefighting workforce by 50 percent in just eight months created a host of unintended problems.

One such problem was apparent just 10 miles from the June Martis fire. At the office and warehouse of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests in Sparks, Nev., a dozen recently hired firefighters were busy building fire engines instead of fighting the Martis blaze. They wired lights and sirens into the cabs of Ford trucks, assembled water pumping units and rigged the trucks' chassis with firefighting equipment. The Nevada sun beat down on five empty chassis awaiting equipment and another half dozen fully equipped trucks ready but for the painted stripes and logos that would brand them as official Forest Service engines.

Hustling to put their newly won funds to work, forest officials turned firefighters into mechanics to build the engines they later would operate. "We couldn't find anyone in the private sector to do this for us in the amount of time we needed," explains Grace Newell, assistant fire management officer at Humboldt-Toiyabe. Private firms said they'd need more than a year to build the patrol rigs and engines that the firefighters were assembling. Newell's temporarily engineless crew was racing to assemble 44 vehicles for themselves and other forests' crews by the end of August. "We found out we had three or four welders," Newell says. The warehouse's mechanic taught the basics of fire engine assembly to firefighters without mechanical backgrounds.

Hurry-Up Hiring

The 2000 fires put the spotlight on the overtaxed federal firefighting workforce. Over the past decade, Congress had funded wildland firefighting at 60 to 80 percent of what agencies requested. That changed when the fiscal 2001 Interior appropriations bill boosted funds and beefed up hiring authority. The ensuing hiring fire drill succeeded in drawing at least 4,000 new fire employees. "I'm not aware that we've ever hired this many firefighters in one block of time," says Lyle Laverty, National Fire Plan coordinator for the Forest Service. "It was clearly the intent of the Congress that we would be staffed to bring the organization up to the most efficient level. So we got on it. They didn't say take two, three, four years." But trying to spend the money in a short time frame produced a spate of unintended consequences, including public service announcements aired after the bulk of hiring had ended, the creation of an automated hiring system that most applicants didn't use and agencies raiding each other for employees.

To lure firefighters, managers must sell recruits on a long, hot summer of arduous work in the American wilderness. How's this for a job description: Fly with seven fellow smokejumpers up to 3,000 feet, see which way the wind's blowing and leap from the plane to a raging forest fire below. Gather the equipment dropped from the plane, dig a trench to halt a fire as large as 100 acres. Then hike up to 10 miles out of the wilderness carrying 115 pounds of gear on your back. Such descriptions are best delivered to potential recruits by the smokejumpers themselves, says Grant Beebe, smokejumper operations supervisor for BLM in Boise. "A lot of our recruitment is word-of-mouth. We're always talking up the program," he says.

Getting a front-line fire job often means getting to know the right people, according to the seasoned pros. Many applicants have friends or family members who are wildland firefighters. "People just getting started in fire [are] completely blind to the fact that it's a club," says Preston Glaisyer, member of a "helitack" crew at Boise National Forest. "You have to know someone who can help you figure the hiring process out." Glaisyer, whose crew rappels from helicopters to corral blazes in wilderness areas, makes a point of introducing himself to firefighters and fire supervisors from other units to build up a network of contacts.

The extra money Congress appropriated for firefighting this year allowed the Boise smokejumpers to bring on 16 rookies, compared with five to 10 in most years. BLM handled seasonal hiring centrally this year and provided Beebe with a list of 215 candidates. The Boise smokejumpers' word-of-mouth campaign was supplemented by dozens of job fairs at Interior and Forest Service sites around the country, as well as radio public service announcements. Payoff from the PSAs was low, however, since the announcements were distributed in May and aired after much of the hiring already had been done. The Interior Department also sent recruiters to military bases where service members who helped out with last year's fires were stationed. But only a few military personnel sought firefighting positions, in part because many won't complete their enlistments until after this year.

Despite the glitches, recruitment efforts delivered. The Forest Service received 38,000 applications for permanent and temporary positions. The Bureau of Land Management received almost 10,000 applications for temporary positions. One snag: Agencies subsequently learned they had received applications from many of the same people.

Technical Difficulties

At the Boise National Forest, fire management officer Stephen Raddatz began advertising for firefighters last November. The forest needed to fill about 50 new positions, including helitacks, prevention specialists (including public education officers and managers of prescribed fires) and a new 20-person "hot shot" crew-one of about 70 elite ground crews that deploy around the country to fight the toughest fires. Della Hawkins, who has worked on federal firefighting crews for seven seasons, most recently in the Upper Rockies, put together a 15-page application and mailed it to the Boise National Forest's Garden Valley Helitack Crew in early November. But later that month, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck decreed the agency would use a centralized online hiring process to fill new positions. Thus Boise and the other forests had to retract their job announcements and return applications to people who had sent them. Hawkins got hers back via slow-moving bulk-rate mail along with a notice asking her to complete a new application for the automated system. (She later landed a job as a helitack at Boise.)

Kathy Burgers, the Forest Service personnel specialist who ran the ramped-up fire hiring out of Washington, D.C., saw the centralized approach as a way to avoid a melee of uncoordinated hiring with fire managers stepping all over each other for the same limited pool of qualified candidates. "I knew there would be a ripple effect," Burgers says. Many of the best candidates would be coming from within the Forest Service and other land agencies. If they took new positions, their old positions would then have to be filled. "There's a relatively small group of trained people out there. People aren't working at Wal-Mart during the day and fighting fire at night." As it turned out, only about 20 percent of the 38,000 people who applied did so online. The rest mailed application packages, forcing Forest Service staffers to spend weeks scanning the paper forms into a central database and automated rating system. Technical difficulties dogged the effort. Once, the automated system sent scores of applications into cyber-oblivion, and computer specialists had to retrieve them.

Hiring Marathons

In February, the automated system finally produced targeted lists of candidates for forest managers nationwide. Weeks of calling back candidates whittled the lists to top choices. Then managers and human resources staffers embarked on telephone hiring marathons at locations around the country. Closeted together in rented hotel conference rooms, they madly dialed for firefighters, hoping to beat offers from sister forests and fellow land agencies.

On the Forest Service's first nationwide hiring day, Feb. 13, Region 4 participants at the Boise Doubletree hotel recall feeling like team owners during a National Basketball Association player draft. Selections started at the GS-9 level and worked down to GS-4, the assumption being that people generally prefer higher-graded, higher-paid positions. A week-long vetting process got under way, with fire managers vying for the best firefighters in the country. With managers in eight other regions also participating at locations around the country, "it wasn't all that often that we ended up with our first choice," recalls John Segar, fire management officer for the Boise National Forest's southern zone. "Sometimes it got down to the seventh or eighth choice."

Once the haggling over who would get which firefighters at a given grade level ended, managers fired up their cell phones, got candidates on the phone and had personnel specialists make official job offers. The forest managers labored their way down through GS-9, GS-8 and GS-7 positions. As the week moved on and Friday approached, cell phones began to ring incessantly. In the final hours of Friday, Feb. 16, fire managers frantically tried to reach candidates, many of whom were packing up to leave for the President's Day holiday weekend. Boise personnel officer Carla Karmendula recalls five supervisors hovering around her, handing her a cell phone every couple of minutes to make official offers. "Job offers were coming right and left," personnel specialist Sheri Kososik remembers. Candidates felt the pressure, too, as they struggled to make job decisions within 72 hours. Russell Long, a foreman for the Fulton hot shot crew at Sequoia National Forest in California, got a call from Boise fire managers seeking a leader to build a new Idaho City hot shot crew from scratch. "I said, 'Hold that thought,' " Long says. He and his wife hopped in their car and drove 16 hours to Idaho City, met the people he would be working with, checked out the area and then drove 16 hours back to Sequoia. He took the job. "It happened incredibly fast," Long says.

In that frenzied first round, 24 people accepted permanent fire jobs with the Boise National Forest. The Forest Service as a whole hired 800 people in a week. "We got excellent people," Raddatz says. "It was just kind of scary and frustrating." And the frustration was just beginning.

Blowup

In late January, as the Bush administration took office, the Forest Service had an advantage over Interior in the hiring process: a confirmed boss. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's Jan. 20 Senate confirmation meant that a Bush ban on hiring new federal employees without the approval of Bush appointees didn't apply to the Forest Service. Interior Secretary Gale Norton wasn't confirmed until 10 days later. "We were ahead by a week and a half," Kososik says. That was just about how long it took for Kathy Burgers' concern about "the ripple effect" to come true.

Boise National Forest's Raddatz had fought hard for a much-coveted candidate to supervise an engine crew, and won him in spite of competing bids from the Bitterroot National Forest in southern Idaho and Montana and the Coconino National Forest in Arizona. But when the Bureau of Land Management geared up its hiring machine, Raddatz's candidate had a change of heart. He and four others Raddatz had hired during the President's Day draft reneged and took jobs with other land agencies. One of Raddatz's engine crews went unfilled this year.

The fight for new hires was fierce and land agencies employed whatever means were necessary to win their first picks. "There was a lot of raiding going on," says Raddatz. But he and other fire managers say there's an upside. "We are consciously developing future leaders within the firefighter ranks," says BLM's Rosey Thomas, fire management officer for the Lower Snake River District in Boise. "A percentage of them are going to go out to other agencies. And that's fine. That's an investment for the government." Nevertheless, the short-term costs were high. At Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, the Alpine Hot Shot Crew watched 12 of its 20 crew members-six permanent and six temporary firefighters-leave for other crews like the new one formed by the Bureau of Land Management in Cedar City, Utah. The BLM Lower Snake River District Office, which shares a fire dispatch center with the Boise National Forest, lost three mid-level supervisors to other agencies.

Mike Dondero, fire management officer for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, says he moved about a dozen new hires to Nevada on Humboldt-Toiyabe's dime. One by one, they accepted jobs elsewhere and left. "The forests had to eat their moving costs," he laments. At the same time, Dondero hired people away from other forests, BLM, the Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "We have a big fire program on the Humboldt-Toiyabe," he says. "And firefighters like to fight fires."

Applicants, some of whom received as many as 20 job offers from land agency units around the country, appreciated the sudden burst of career choices. But many also experienced the process as disorganized and uncoordinated. The Forest Service put applicants through two additional rounds of hiring for permanent positions and three rounds of temporary hiring before June, while the four Interior Department agencies hired continuously, but separately, from February into June.

State land management agencies also were affected. The Idaho Department of Lands lost two permanent fire managers and about 20 long-term seasonal firefighters to the federal government this year. Montana's fire training supervisor, Mike Kopitzke, says state officials expected the federal government's hiring effort to drain their firefighting workforce. So the state approved a 20 percent increase in firefighters' pay this year, raising rates to about the federal level.

Despite the musical chairs movement of applicants among agencies, by June, federal fire managers were claiming success. The Bureau of Land Management estimated that it filled 85 percent of its 4,000 firefighting jobs, while the Forest Service reported it filled 90 percent. The Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs each estimated they filled more than 70 percent of their positions. That still left almost 3,000 positions to reach 100 percent, but in the field, managers were happy overall. Boise National Forest's Raddatz filled all but a handful of engine positions and nine prevention specialist jobs by June. Humboldt-Toiyabe's Dondero filled all of his 268 firefighting openings. Russell Long, hired by Raddatz in the Forest Service's first round of permanent hiring, quickly came aboard and hired 20 people to fill his new hot shot crew. "There was a lot of horse trading," he says. "For the most part, it worked. We're proof that it worked. We're fighting fire in June. We had nothing in February."

Kept Off the Line

Despite the large number of jobs filled, some people who had been returning each season to fight fires as temporary employees found themselves shut out of the hiring boom. When Montanan Kathy Hudak, 41, heard last fall that federal agencies would be opening up hundreds of permanent firefighting positions, she expected to be a shoo-in for a permanent job, having several seasons of experience as a temporary firefighter along with training as a paramedic. But in February, Hudak received bad news: She is too old. The Forest Service says 35 is the maximum age for a new permanent federal firefighter because the mandatory retirement age for firefighters is 55.

"I had four messages on my machine offering me jobs as a temporary. I said no," Hudak says. "If I'm qualified, I should have been picked up as a permanent. I'm not going to give the government the benefit of having my services for four months with no benefits. If I'm good enough for four months, I'm good enough for 12 months."

Fire officers have mixed feelings about the maximum entry age of 35. Many see it as a good way to make sure the Forest Service focuses on attracting a young workforce. Marsha Frost, a Forest Service headquarters human resources official, notes that a recent workforce analysis found that the 30,000-person agency had only 111 permanent employees under the age of 25 and only 3,000 employees under the age of 35. But some fire managers were disappointed that they had to turn away good candidates who were just a couple of years over the age ceiling, particularly for hard-to-fill supervisory positions. Forest Service fire plan coordinator Laverty says the age limit probably is appropriate in the interest of spending tight training dollars on workers likely to stay longer. But, "if no one wanted to come to work for us, that could lead to a different decision," he says. "It's tough. I know how I would feel if I was 36."

Containing the Fire

Land agency fire managers and personnel officers still are getting used to the fact that between November and May they not only hired thousands of firefighters, but got them trained before major fires broke out in the West this summer.

Of course, the managers' work is not finished. In addition to training firefighters, managers have to equip and house them. The influx of new employees has created a shortage of fire-resistant pants at Rocky Mountain National Park. The pants can be ordered only when fires are burning at the park, says Fire Management Office Jesse Duhnkrack. He's also had to tell new firefighters to find their own accommodations; the park's existing housing is full and no money for new facilities was forthcoming this year. New crews like Russell Long's Idaho City hot shots have set up shop in temporary trailers and have helped firefighters find places to live for the summer while government barracks are built.

Many firefighters are holding their breath until next year's budgets are approved, worried that the axe will fall on some positions. "People are afraid the money is going to go away," says John Obst, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council, the union that represents Forest Service firefighters. "We got the money after a pretty disastrous fire season. Is there going to be a commitment from Congress and the administration to keep us at a maximum firefighting efficiency level if it all of a sudden is a wet year and we get a couple of wet years in a row?"

As Congress studies how the five land agencies spent their $2.9 billion firefighting budget this year, fire officials need to remind lawmakers that the conditions that led to the 2000 fire season and the Martis Fire in Reno were nearly 100 years in the making, says Larry Hamilton, BLM's director of fire and aviation. It will take years to treat the government's hundreds of millions of acres of public land to make them less susceptible to fire.

"This is not a one-year effort," Hamilton says. "This is going to take several years. You don't, for example, go down to the car dealership and buy these fire engines. Looking at statistics and measuring our performance, you'll see more acres treated, better initial attack capability, more public education, more funding for rural fire departments and local communities. With all that being said, you could still have a [bad] year for fires. But without the National Fire Plan, it could have been a lot worse."


SMOKY NUMBERS

Numbers crunchers at the five land management agencies have a tough time figuring out how many firefighters are on hand at any given time. Local units report with varying degrees of timeliness and accuracy. At the Forest Service, firefighters are classified as forestry technicians, making it impossible for the personnel system to differentiate a firefighter from an insect researcher. Thus, overall numbers are unreliable. Here are estimates of the numbers of firefighters on hand as of June.

Federal Wildland Firefighters (seasonal and permanent)

Agency Actual Last Year Projected This Year Actual as of June % of Positions filled
Forest Service* 7,700 11,000 9,900 90%
Bureau of Land Management 2,435 4,128 3,506 85%
Bureau of Indian Affairs 1,152 1,877 1,415 75%
National Park Service 702 1,390 980 71%
Fish and Wildlife Service 500 972 596 61%
Total 12,489 19,367 16,397 85%

*Forest Service numbers provided by human resources office. The agency's fire management office estimates the number of firefighters this year at 13,000, with about 250 positions unfilled as of June.

Source: Forest Service, Interior Department

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