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.