Commentary

A Firefighting Alternative

Oregon, Washington use specialized private sector help, why not California?

With the wildfires largely behind us, firefighters scale down their efforts while politicians scale up. Some say the governor-elect should keep the car tax and raise taxes even more to ensure that communities have enough firefighters to stave off future wildfires. They ask how someone could oppose a tax that would help the homeowners and firefighters who looked so defenseless next to the mighty flames.

However, we should avoid getting cornered into a choice between higher taxes and periodic wildfire devastation. Contracting out offers a third way that would ensure a large, highly skilled pool of firefighters at less cost than hiring more public employees.

When California realized we didn’t have enough firefighters, officials called upon the military and thousands of prison inmates. Certainly, these were the actions of leaders who thought they had exhausted every possible resource.

However, one promising resource remained largely untapped – the 6,000 private-sector firefighters that serve Oregon and Washington. “I had 20 contractors calling me offering crews,” an official at the Oregon Department of Forestry told me. “They were geared up, trained and ready to go.”

Eventually, California did call on some Northwest contract firefighters, but only a few hundred. As the fire season up north came to a close, nearly all of the 6,000 firefighters would have been available. The next time wildfires threaten Southern California, we should use these contract firefighters more extensively. Better yet, California could change the way it fights wildfires and allow a homegrown industry to develop.

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 industry has grown so much that when they aren’t needed at home, contractors frequently deploy their crews to wildfires across the nation. But a growing industry is not without its pains. Government officials in Washington and Oregon have begun to see that they are essentially providing oversight to an industry that often operates outside Oregon and Washington. Why can’t other states pitch in with oversight duties?

Here California can help itself by helping the Northwest. If California were to shift toward contracting out for wildfire protection, firms from the Northwest would expand south and provide a ready source of manpower. Meanwhile, related private fire services firms closer to Southern California would see a new market and begin training crews to fight wildfires. Eventually, these closer-to-home firms would supplement those from the north. California would have to provide regulatory oversight, but that would be cheaper than hiring new employees.

The nature of the threat posed by wildfires also lends itself to contracting out. Public safety threats like cardiac arrests and car accidents require a constant presence of emergency medical personnel poised for prompt response, but wildfires are seasonal. And since wildfire seasons peak at different times in different states, contractors could follow the fires as they ignite. A longer fire season would mean that contractors could also provide jobs for a longer part of the year. This would increase the viability of contracting and -since they would see more action – increase crew expertise.

We shouldn’t be so quick to proclaim higher taxes as our only defense against wildfires.

We should tilt our sights north to discover another way – and let’s do it before next fire season.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.

Ted is the director of Can We Take a Joke?, a Korchula Productions feature documentary about the collision between comedy and outrage culture featuring comedians such as Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, and Adam Carolla. Ted is producing Little Pink House, a Korchula Productions feature narrative about about Susette Kelo's historic fight to save her beloved home and neighborhood. The film stars two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Emmy nominee Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love, The Firm, Basic Instinct).

Ted produced the award-winning shorts The Conversation and Cute Couple. He is an executive producer on the feature documentary Honor Flight, and produced the film's first trailer, which attracted more than 4.5 million views. The Honor Flight premiere attracted an audience of more than 28,000 and set the Guinness World Record for largest film screening in history.

Ted is a founding member of ReasonTV, where he produced hundreds of videos and documentary shorts, including Raiding California, which introduced a nationwide audience to the Charles Lynch medical marijuana case.

Ted is co-creator of The Drew Carey Project, a series of documentary shorts hosted by Drew Carey, and creator of the comedic series Don't Cops Have Better Things to Do? and Nanny of the Month.

His ReasonTV contributions have been featured by The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, and on the he John Stossel Special Bailouts and Bull, a first-of-its-kind joint project between ABC News and ReasonTV.

During Ted's tenure, ReasonTV received the Templeton Freedom Award for Innovative Media and in 2008 Businessweek recognized his short Where's My Bailout? (created with Courtney Balaker) as among the best of bailout humor.

Prior to joining Reason, Ted spent five years producing at ABC Network News, producing hour-long specials and 20/20 segments on topics ranging from free speech to addiction.

Ted's written work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Reason magazine, The Washington Post, and USA TODAY. He is the author or co-author of 11 studies on topics ranging from urban policy to global trade, and his research has been presented before organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society and the American Economic Association.

Ted is co-author (with Sam Staley) of the book The Road More Traveled (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), which Chapman University's Joel Kotkin says "should be required reading, not only for planners and their students, but for anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive."

Ted has appeared on many radio and television programs, including ABC World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News, and has interviewed hundreds of thinkers and innovators, ranging from X Prize recipient and private spaceflight pioneer Burt Rutan to Templeton Prize-winning biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala.

Ted graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Irvine with degrees in political science and English.