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Private-sector firefighters answer the call

Rob Sabo
rsabo@nnbw.biz

Extreme drought and bone-dry conditions throughout Nevada have led to more wildland fires in recent years, and government agencies turn to private-sector firms to help federal crews extinguish blazes on federal lands.

Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, says that over the past decade about 40 percent of front-line fire-suppression personnel on fires in the West and throughout the United States have come from private companies. Full privatization of the wildland fire industry isn’t realistic, Miley says, but private firms play a key role in fire suppression in the West and throughout the U.S.

In 2013, for instance, 20 fires burned at least 10 acres in Elko County, the largest of which was the 16,193-acre Red Cow fire near Tuscarora that began in August. More than 200 firefighting personnel and 17 engines were assigned to the fire.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Elko District office handles more than 150 fires during fire season that runs from June through mid September, but the tinder-dry conditions throughout the northeastern half of the state has led to extreme fire conditions over the past years, the BLM says. The district employs more than 70 permanent and seasonal wildland firefighting personnel, hotshot crews and a large fleet of equipment, but private companies also are called upon when larger fires rage.

“We have been a workforce for quite some time,” Miley says from the organization’s headquarters in Lyons, Ore. “You will never privatize all of the fire service; they need the overhead and knowledge that the agencies have with regards to fire. But it takes an optimal mix of federal public and private industry. We are an on-call industry, we are out there and available, and it makes it cost-effective to use us.”

Private incident response teams often mirror federal crew sizes and comprise up to a 20-person strikeforce, timber fallers, equipment operators, engines, water tenders, bulldozers and specialized equipment, as well as base camp services, equipment and supplies.

In 2012 the NWSA conducted a study comparing costs for federal-agency wildland fire crews versus private crews. Among the findings:

Average cost per day for agency crews can run as high as $11,198 per day, while privately contracted crews can cost roughly $1,000 per day less.

Federal crews fighting fires for two full weeks can cost between $153,000 and $156,000, while private crew can cost about $130,000 to $150,000 depending the type of services contracted.

The U.S. Forest Service is the largest user of private wildland firefighting firms, Miley says. In Nevada, use of private firms varies from region to region, she adds, and a lot of land falls under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which typically doesn’t use as much private industry. As such, of the NWSA’s 207 members only a handful are located in northern Nevada.

According to the NWSA, there were 11,151 private-sector firefighters working in 2012 manning nearly 1,000 dozers and 836 engines and hundreds of excavators, tree fallers, water tenders, pump trucks and similar heavy equipment. The region that includes Nevada, Arizona and Southern Idaho had 416 fire personnel, 86 engines and a handful of water tenders.

Jerry Gamroth knows a bit about wildland firefighting — he was regional president for the NWSA for three consecutive terms and ran Wildland Services of Reno for 30 years before turning to a new venture, Infrared Services. His current firm has a joint-venture partnership with Lost River Fire of Merrill, Ore., to provide thermal imaging of fires to detect hotspots that can’t be seen from the ground.

Gamroth had a task force of 28 employees and five engines and fought fires from Nevada to Florida. He says private companies typically are awarded contracts through the BLM or Forest Service and are dispatched by the agency leading fire suppression efforts.

Private firms face the same regulations as federal crews, Gamroth notes.

“The companies that are in it are highly regulated as far as training and qualifications,” he says. “They are strictly verified — and in many cases some are more qualified that wildland personnel from the fire service.”

Each year, Gamroth says, crews have to pass the “pack test” where they carry a 45-pound pack three miles in under 45 minutes. They also must have a minimum of 40 hours of training and eight hours of refresher training each year to earn the Firefighter 1 or Firefighter 2 designation. Crew leaders are required to have additional training, Gamroth notes.

Training comprises one of the biggest expenses for private-sector wildfire companies. Wildland Services benefitted from have top-tier instructors on staff so it kept training costs down.

Gamroth says a lot of his staff were Native Americans, and he also did a lot of recruiting at ski resorts during the winter season.

“They are not working in the summer,” he says.