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Fighting Fires is Big Business for Private Companies

As the private firefighting industry has grown, so too has its political clout

As the Rim Fire burnt its way into the record books this summer, hundreds of firefighters, as well as fire engines, airplanes, helicopters, and bulldozers, were used to try and bring the blaze under control. Sparked by a hunter’s illegal campfire, the blaze, which crossed into Yosemite National Park, was the third largest in California’s history. Hundreds of square miles were burnt and more than $100 million were spent fighting it.

plane drops flame retardentPhoto courtesy Coconino National ForestAs the proportion of the agency’s budget spent on fighting fires grows, more of that money has ended up in private pockets. In recent years, private firefighting companies have often accounted for more than 40 percent of the agency’s fire suppression budget.

Firefighting is an expensive business, and much of that business is going to private companies. Contractors now supply local and national agencies with everything from fire engines to firefighters. The largest employer in this multi-million dollar industry is the United States Forest Service. Over the past three decades, private companies have become a familiar sight on fire lines around the country where green Forest Service trucks are frequently joined by fire engines marked with the logos of private firefighting companies.

US Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, says the use of private contractors makes economic sense for the agency. “They don't work unless there's a fire,” he says. “It's a business risk they have to take, and it provides us with more flexibility.” “The Chief” as he is known in the agency, was in Oakland last year for an event promoting urban forestry where he hinted at a greater role for private firefighting in the future. “As we see more fires there may be more people who get into the business,” he said, Tidwell, however, insisted that this wouldn’t change the agency’s approach to firefighting.

Not everyone is convinced by that assurance. As the private firefighting industry has grown, so too has its influence on politicians and government. Despite, the rapid growth of the industry, there has been little public debate about the role of these companies until now. “Why is fire management on public lands being turned over to profit-seeking corporations?” asks Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “They don't share the same interests as folks with a vision of long-term stewardship.” The main concern people like Ingalsbee share is that private companies are putting profit over the environment.

Fires are an important part of many North American ecosystems. (Read our recent report about the ecological importance of forest fires.) Despite a long history of putting them out, in recent years the Forest Service has acknowledged the need to restore fire to the landscape. In a changing climate, that mission has become increasingly urgent. “I think we’re at a critical juncture” says Niel Lawrence senior attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council, “Because of the build-up of fuels in forests and because of the drying and increased temperatures because of climate change, forest fires are going to become more common…. if we don’t get fire back in the woods now, as things get warmer and more dry the further build up of fuels in the forests is going to make it not only impossible to protect our communities, but I think it’s going to make it impossible to get fire back in the woods at all.” (Listen to my radio story “The Burning Issue: America’s War on Fire” on Making Contact)

But are private firefighting companies, making it harder to restore fire to the woods?

Debates about the economic and environmental cost of fire suppression have been heating up. Each year the Forest Service spends as much as $100 million a week on firefighting. In 1991, fire suppression accounted for about 13 percent of the agency’s budget, but by 2012 it made up more than 40 percent. Frequently, this hasn’t been enough to cover fire suppression, and in recent years the agency has regularly overspent. After burning through its fire suppression budget this year, the agency announced in August that it was cutting $600 million in other areas of its work, to fund firefighting, leading some to disparagingly refer to it as the “Fire Service”

“There are a variety of things pushing the Forest Service in this direction” says Lawrence, “not least the political pressure that channels public concern over the threats from fire to communities and homes.” Fear of fire also makes it a lot easier for the agency to get funding from Congress, he says. “It would be naive to think that there wasn’t anybody in the agency who saw fire suppression as a meal ticket and more suppression as more meals.”

As the proportion of the agency’s budget spent on fighting fires grows, more of that money has ended up in private pockets. In recent years, private firefighting companies have often accounted for more than 40 percent of the agency’s fire suppression budget.

Much of the money is being spent on air tankers — among the most expensive weapons in the Forest Service’s arsenal. At fires across the US, these planes are used to dump gallons of bright red fire retardant, called “mud” or “slurry drops” by firefighters, to slow the advance of a fire. Airplanes used by the federal agencies are mostly contracted from private companies rather than owned by the government. Supporters of this arrangement say it’s a cheaper option than if the government maintained the planes itself, because it costs tens of millions of dollars to build and operate them. It’s a common argument in support of privatizing government services. There’s even a long-standing public law, known as “The Pressler Law,” which in many cases prohibits government-owned aircraft from working on fires when the job could be done by commercial enterprise.

A senior Forest Service employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that “the private wild land firefighting lobby wields a lot of clout and in particular the folks that own the air tankers.” The employee, who has several decades experience working for the agency on wildfire issues, said that it was common for companies to contact legislators to ask them “why isn’t this piece of equipment being used?”

firemen in front of a forest fire Photo courtesy USDAWhile private companies have a long history of providing airplanes to the Forest Service, the
use of private ground crews is a relatively recent development.

Lucrative contracts with the Forest Service are hotly contested by firefighting companies. With the agency looking to replace its aging fleet of airplanes, some dating back to the Korean War, interest from contractors has mounted. So too has their influence. According to the government watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics, several companies have lobbied the Forest Service on the issue of aerial firefighting, including Lockheed Martin. The arms manufacturer built the original C-130 planes used to fly missions on wildfires, and lists “aerial firefighting” as a lobbying issue in its public disclosures. Lockheed Martin did not respond to several requests for an interview.

As the climate changes, firefighting companies are predicting business opportunities will take off. “The fire situation in North America is nothing but getting worse and therefore you need some protective equipment and this tanker is amongst the best,” says Rick Hatton, owner of 10 Tanker LLC, a private firefighting company.

Hatton’s company currently has two planes contracted to the Forest Service. Its planes have reportedly flown over a thousand missions, including more than 30 missions this summer on the Rim Fire. The Forest Service pays about $50,000 a day just to keep the planes ready on stand-by, and another $22,000 for every hour flown. The company is re-fitting a third aircraft, and has plans to acquire one more.

Asked if he thought that the federal government was using aerial firefighting enough, Hatton was clear: “Enough is never enough,” he said. “Obviously as a businessman I would like them to use more types of our airplane and company.”

Given that it takes a large amount of money to get an air tanker business off the ground, it's hardly surprising that many of these companies are lobbying the Forest Service on wildfire issues. Hatton initially insisted his company had never paid a “big ‘L’ lobbying" firm, but 10 Tanker is publicly listed as having paid two lobbying companies in the last five years, most recently the Roosevelt Group. When asked about his relationship with the group, Hatton said: “We never gave them any money.” That surprised Chris Goode, associate manager for the Roosevelt Group, who confirmed that 10 Tanker had paid the firm for consultations. When asked again about payments to the Richmond Group, Hatton changed his earlier statement. “I may be incorrect in saying we never paid them a penny,” he said.

While private companies have a long history of providing airplanes to the Forest Service, the use of private ground crews is a relatively recent development. Oregon is a hotbed for this emerging industry. The Beaver State is home to more than half of all private firefighting resources in the country. Previously, many of those fire suppression companies were also involved in other forestry work, such as clearing undergrowth, or tree planting, but “they are being hauled by the economics into something that is more lucrative” says Stephen Clarke, a private contractor with two decades experience in forestry, mostly with hand crews. That “something” is putting out fires.

Representing this growing industry is the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which claims more than 200 private firefighting companies as members. The association’s executive director Debbie Miley says that the companies she represents are there to “complement” not replace agency resources. Like Chief Tidwell, Miley maintains that private companies can provide better value for money than government contractors. She denies that her industry has pushed for more of a share of the Forest Service budget. “There was no plan, or plot,” she says. “As the budgets have decreased in the Forest Service you have seen an increase in the use of contractors.”

But Clarke believes the increasing number of workers specializing in suppressing fires is a problem. In the past, most firefighters were involved in other aspects of forestry in the off-season and developed a more rounded view of forests, but nowadays “you have less opportunity to think that way,” he says. While this shift in perspective might change the way some firefighters on the frontline tackle a blaze, Clarke says the more significant change is taking place at the political level.

NWSA director Miles says that while the association has political connections they “haven’t sought to use them”. But Clarke, who was on the board of the association for several years, says it’s “naive” to think that the industry isn’t promoting itself. For many years the association hired a "government relations" consultant, Chuck Burley, who had previously worked for the Forest Service and had also been an Oregon state legislator. “Any industry association is there to try and make their industry stronger” Clarke says, “the more politically connected, and politically astute business owners are politically involved and they make their needs known.”

NWSA president Rick Dice, readily agrees that he advocates for the business. “I lobby, if you want to call it that; I'm promoting the private industry,” says the former Army Staff Sergeant who runs his own forestry company, PatRick Corporation out of Redmond, Oregon. Like many businesses, the private firefighting industry actively courts politicians and Dice says there are “a lot of legislators who support the idea of using contractors to fulfill [firefighting] needs.”

Among those legislators is Congressman Greg Walden. Walden represents Oregon’s second district and is also chair of the influential Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Dice, who counts himself as a Walden supporter, says his association keeps the Congressman “informed of pretty much everything that's going on in our industry.” Earlier this year, Walden wrote to the Forest Service to advocate for private fire contractors. He wrote “I hope you are taking greater advantage of these private businesses’ services both for initial and extended attack operations.” Dice has donated thousands of dollars to Walden’s campaign fund and when Walden launched his re-election campaign in 2006, he did so at PatRick headquarters, with Rick Dice standing at his side.

Walden isn't the only elected representative to have advocated for increased use of private firefighting companies. Politicians from both of the two main parties have spoken in favor of using contractors. Clearly, whether through the use of paid lobbyists, informal connections, or industry associations, the private firefighting industry is making itself heard at all levels of government. And for people like Timothy Ingalsbee, this is deeply troubling.

The industry has an economic stake “in perpetuating firefighting even in cases where it might be far cheaper for taxpayers, less risky for firefighters, and more ecologically beneficial for land to let fires burn more,” he says.

A change in the weather, along with the spread of the fire into rocky terrain, where there is less to burn, ultimately helped slow California's Rim Fire, but for now, the influence of the private firefighting industry continues to spread.

George Lavender
George Lavender is an independent radio and print journalist. He is a producer of Making Contact, a weekly half-hour public affairs program. He has worked as a radio reporter for several outlets, including Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News, and the Pacifica Network. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, New Internationalist, In These Times, Journal of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Truth Out, and local newspapers in the US and UK. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender

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I know little about this industry.  What I do know is that every summer I as well as a lot of other people including senior citizens are breathing foul air.  What I would like to know is the difference between fire management and fire fighting? If fire management means letting fires burn for awhile because of ecological benefits, why cannot the same objective be achieved by investing in forest undergrowth clearing?  I want fires put out quickly.  I am not interested in keeping fires burning to protect the jobs of those in the industry.  Those in the industry be they private or public are only too happy to vote for politicians who subsidize them.  I don’t want to be forced to breathe foul air to keep this industry fat, happy, and comfortable.

By Scott F. Holland on Mon, August 27, 2018 at 3:49 am

As one of the wildland firefighters who actually fight these fires, (sawyer and EMT on an initial attack hand crew)
I am awed by some of the ill informed comments and opinions shared in the text as well as in the comments section. Before anyone can comment on the privatization pros, cons, and legalities with private companies, it would serve them well to become more familiar with FEMA

  IS-320, IS-800, IS-700,IS-201,IS-804(ESF #4),IS-809, and all of the supporting ESF Annexes regarding CLIKR and the other pertinent ESF Annexes. 
  Our National Response Framework (NRF)very specifically addresses the manner, protocols, and mission objectives of the roll of the private sector involvement in Stafford and non Stafford incidents. 
  I have worked extensively with a number of private contractors over the years and can attest that NO-ONE is making a fortune off the government. Most of these companies are incredible resources that do the same job we do. 
  Some of the statements here and in the text claim that the private contractors just don’t seem to “care” as much as the Feds. What kind of foolishness is this? Caring for the woody riparian habitat is not a focal issue when your multi million dollar air tanker goes down (taking the crew with it) while attempting to save homes that did not follow simple “fire safe” guidelines. When you are caught in fatal situations because safe access has been denied due to an ill-informed public micro managing because they wish to show their “symbiotic relationship” with nature, you are praying that private tanker gets there soon to give you a line to a safety zone.
  We ALL care deeply for our environment- this includes many of the contractors that risk their lives in the same places we do, using the same IAP, sleeping in the same spike camps,and demanding the same performance standard as the daily mission requires of them. The only difference is that if a contractor under performs- unlike many agency units- they will be asked to demob.  For the general public -in simple terms- this means pack up and go home. I have seen this happen.  Sounds like a pretty fair deal to me.
  Too bad so much of our government finds it so difficult to live by this work ethic.  Maybe we can actually learn from private contractors after all.
  I wish to thank all of my private air tanker, sawyers, helicopter, engine crews, and overhead friends for helping us hook so many nasty blazes over the years and I am looking forward to serving with you again this year.
  Here’s to our magnificent forests and the family that would lay down their life attempting to protect them.

By Joey DeMartino on Mon, January 12, 2015 at 10:10 pm

If you’re arguing that fires should not be fought in the first place (except perhaps to protect property), or that the fire suppression techniques used, as well as the “thinning” that goes on after a fire, then i agree, but that does not seem to be the argument made here.

By Diane Livia on Sat, November 02, 2013 at 9:22 am

The privatization of any government function is problematic from a perspective of spending.  However, to suggest that private fire fighting companies have an effect on how the fires are fought, or how often fires happen, is not at all supported.  As I understand it, the Forest Service has very specific programs regarding fire fighting and protection after a fire,and contractors have little influence on that. 

PS.  Fire retardant is prohibited from use in the Hetch Hetchy watershed, and SFPUC had no problem making sure the prohibition was observed during the Rim Fire.

By Diane Livia on Sat, November 02, 2013 at 7:41 am

Just for the record, what I said during my interview was that we continue to build political relationships in the event we need them, however our primary goal is to create a working relationship with the folks that we contract with.

I also did not say Plot or Plan I stated when asked if we had lobbied the hill about the fire budget, that we had not utilized a lobbyist for any purpose on the hill. Also our utilization is based on need that is determined by the agencies in charge of the fires. Our contracts/agreements are “Call when needed” with no guarantees of usage at the same time requiring a substantial outlay of dollars to meet the requirements of our agreements/contracts.

Most of the firefighters in the private industry are from small town rural areas that live, play and work in the forests and therefore have a vested interest in protecting them.

By Deborah Miley on Wed, October 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm

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