Fire Managers Increasingly Turning to Private Fire Crews

Aug 19, 2013

With wildfires still raging across the Northwest, fire managers are turning to private firefighting crews in increasing numbers. One private industry group says contractors are responsible for a surprising 40 percent of firefighters on the ground in the region.

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry said that figure sounds about right. But the shift didn't happen overnight; the Oregon Department of Forestry's Rod Nichols says the change started in the 80s.

Before a downturn in the timber industry, logging companies often had their own fire crews. And there were more federal forest workers as well. But Nichols says as those numbers dwindled, fire managers had to be creative.

"They'd just literally go to the nearest towns to the fire and kind of go to the town square and say, 'Does anybody want to fight fire?' You know, it worked sometimes. But obviously it wasn't a long-term solution,” he said.

So the Oregon agency drew up contracts with private professional firefighting crews. The practice expanded and now ODF oversees contracts for fighting wildfires on federal and state lands in Oregon and Washington. At least on paper, the private crews have to meet minimum federal training and safety standards.