Forest Service is criticized for not using more local firefighters

Friday, August 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ When the biggest wildfires Colorado and Arizona have ever seen erupted earlier this year, hundreds of local firefighters sat idle as the U.S. Forest Service sent in its own teams.

Some nearby fire departments were called later; some never got the call at all as the blazes raged for weeks and destroyed at least 600 homes.

``We offered our assistance and were turned down, as were other departments,'' said Fire Chief Ben Owens of Show Low, Ariz., which was evacuated but spared during the fire. ``When it was small, we might have been able to make a difference. On the second day, the fire was at our back door.''

It is not clear whether calling in more firefighters at the start really would have made a difference. But the Forest Service's mobilization practices have come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the two disasters.

Some question whether the agency is relying too heavily on its own crews at a time when more and more people are living near forests and severe drought has made it critical to hit fires hard when they break out.

``The federal system is reasonably effective for mobilizing resources. It just takes 48 to 72 hours to do it, and in doing it, they bypass a lot of local resources,'' complained Boulder Fire Chief Larry Donner, secretary of the Colorado Association of Fire Chiefs. ``When Colorado was a sleepy, rural state, people could stand by and watch fires and go, `Ooh' and `Aah.' Now that we have homes there, we have to get serious.''

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., wants to conduct congressional hearings to learn why the Forest Service did not draw more on local firefighters in the initial attack on the Arizona blaze, which burned 469,000 acres and destroyed at least 467 homes. At its peak, there were more than 4,400 firefighters on the fire.

``I don't want to say that what I am hearing is rage. It is more like legitimate questions,'' Hayworth said. ``They want to know how much better it could have been if they had been involved early.''

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said it is too soon to say whether calling in more firefighters would have made a difference. But he said the agency will review decisions made on both fires.

``There is always room for improvement. It is hard to address why some volunteer departments were called and some weren't,'' he said.

The Forest Service has nearly 12,200 firefighters who are federal employees or employees of companies under contract to the agency. It also has available about 11,500 state and local firefighters and support workers who have been trained and certified by the agency to work on wildfires.

Under a decades-old system, the agency maintains a list of these qualified firefighters who can be called at a moment's notice. The Forest Service also keeps track of departments that have trucks and other equipment capable of traveling off-road in the wilderness.

Most small fire departments cannot afford to add their certified employees to the master list because they would risk losing crews to distant fires for days, leaving their areas uncovered.

In the case of the Arizona and Colorado fires, Walsh said some local firefighters may not have been certified to fight wildfires, some trucks may not have been suitable for off-road work, and some firefighters and equipment may not have been on the agency's list.

The Forest Service will not assign non-certified firefighters to wildfires because of the unique dangers involved and the specialized skills required.

``There is a big difference between fighting a wildfire and fighting a structure fire,'' Walsh said. ``The bottom line for us is safety. We are not going to put people in harm's way.''

When a 150-acre fire broke out June 8 outside Denver, the Forest Service had two helicopters and up to 50 firefighters on the scene within several hours. Twelve nearby fire departments were not called, though several had crews willing to go.

The fire grew to 137,000 acres within two weeks, destroying 133 homes and hundreds of other structures. At the fire's peak, there were about 2,500 firefighters on the blaze.

``You spend all your time training for this stuff. We had crews ready to go,'' said Hartsel Volunteer Fire Chief Jay Hutcheson, whose station is about 27 miles from the site. But he added: ``I am not sure that anything would have made a difference that night with those conditions.''

The Trumbull Volunteer Fire Department refused orders to evacuate and saved more than 150 homes, volunteer firefighter Don Eberhart said.

And Divide Fire Chief Greg David sent his crew without being asked. Federal firefighters ``ran across us and asked what we were doing out there,'' he said.