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A different way to fight wildfires

Ted Balaker
November 17, 2003, 9:38am

I had an article in Sunday's Orange County Register, and in it I examine how Oregon and Washington contract out for wildfire protection, and how such practices might work in California–where politicians regard increased taxes as the only defense against wildfire devestation. Here's how it works in Oregon and Washington: Decades ago, the Northwest learned that pension payments and rising workers' compensation costs would make it difficult to expand wildfire protection programs. Contracting out allowed resourceful officials to sidestep those and other costs associated with hiring employees. Oregon and Washington now pay for wildfire protection on an hourly basis - only as needed. Government agencies in the Northwest have shifted focus from fighting wildfires themselves to managing firefighters and ensuring quality. Regulators vet potential contract crews for quality, and once they meet government standards for training and supervision, regulators and contractors agree upon other considerations such as cost and insurance. When a fire erupts, a decentralized system ensures that the closest crews get used first. Since all the particulars are outlined before a crisis, government dispatchers and contract crews work together quite smoothly. Contractors have an incentive to perform well and meet training standards because shirking those duties means risking a swift kick in the pocketbook. If need be, government regulators may mete out stiff fines and kill contracts. Historically, the Northwest has been home to many sorts of forestry-related industries. With such a concentration of expertise, it was a natural place for contract firefighting to take hold. Now Oregon and Washington contract with 90 private firms, which means they have access to a much larger pool of firefighters than if they had relied on an in-house force. And the pool of firefighters isn't just large - it's specialized. The training the contract firefighters receive reflects the fact that fighting wildfires requires different skills than fighting structural fires. The whole article is available here.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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