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O D Costs- Firefighters1-7 Billion*

May 29, 2001

U.S. Bolsters Firefighters After Bad Last Year


ASHINGTON, May 28 — With wildfires raging in Florida and Nevada and forecasters predicting another big fire season, federal agencies are bolstering their firefighting lineups to avoid a repeat of last year's devastating blazes across the nation.

The National Fire Plan, financed by a $1.78 billion Congressional appropriation late last year, will add nearly 7,000 jobs to firefighting efforts by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. The positions will improve the government's response to wildfires and ensure that fire resources are kept at "maximum efficiency" for years to come, officials said.

"Our focus is to ensure that we are prepared to meet the challenges of protecting communities and landscapes from the wrath of wildland fire," Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton said last week.

Ms. Norton plans to meet with Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado on Tuesday to discuss the National Fire Plan and fire preparedness.

The new positions include seasonal smoke jumpers, engine crewmen and frontline support fighters, or hotshots.

Before this year's hiring surge, federal opportunities for entry-level firefighters had been on the decline for years, said Forest Service veterans like Rex Holloway, a spokesman for the Pacific Northwest region of the Forest Service in Portland, Ore.

"With the Forest Service, we have been in a downsizing mode" the past few years, Mr. Holloway said, "and have not been hiring a lot of people."

As a result, many federal firefighting crews lacked the young, skilled workers needed to sustain peak performance in the long term.

"The work force has stayed static, and not only that, people are retiring," said Mike Daluz, a former hotshot crewman now in charge of fire operations in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.

The average staff member of Mr. Daluz's agency is now 46 years old. Excluding new employees, the Forest Service estimates that more than half of its workers will retire by 2011.

The problem reached a peak last year, Mr. Daluz said, when extreme fire conditions and a lack of experienced people hampered the ability of some crews to respond to fires during the worst fire season in more than 90 years. The fires spread over nearly 10,800 square miles.

During catastrophic fire seasons, he said, even a glut of seasonal workers without proper leadership "means we may not be there in a timely way."

But last season's fires sounded the national alarm, and within months, federal money was set aside to improve the system.

"Starting last spring with the Los Alamos fire, and then almost nightly as people were seeing images of large fires, it became a bipartisan effort" to add the resources to help reshape the national firefighting strategy, said Lyle Laverty, the Forest Service's coordinator for the National Fire Plan.

"I think we are doing very well," Mr. Laverty said, adding that 4,894 of the 5,000 new Forest Service positions had been filled. "I cannot recall any point in our agency's history that we hired as many people in one short window as we are now."

(Original Len: 3544 Condensed Len: 3895)

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