It's the beginning of the forest fire season in the western United States, but personnel from national forests across the country have been trained and tested to be prepared for whatever happens.
Peter To, fire management officer for the Allegheny National Forest, said in the 1980's and 1990's the federal budget allowed the Forest Service to hire seasonal workers, some of which were used in firefighting. Today, seasonal work is contracted out to private firms. That, along with an aging work force makes filling out crews more challenging.
Today, the ANF pairs up with other national forests to send a 20-person crew to an incident. In addition to fire fighting, crews fill in with support for camp security, engine and helicopter operations, dispatch centers and even financial support for things like transportation and supplies.
Forest Service personnel willing to fight fires are listed in a computerized system according to their qualifications and availability, and when fires expand or need more personnel, dispatch centers will write out an order for support and personnel.
Kathy Mohney, public affairs specialist for the ANF, explained that fire command posts are like a "town within a town," where the personnel gathered for a fire form a self-sufficient community, although the camps are not located in towns, but in proximity to fire scenes.
To said, "Every year we send folks, and we have people that are certified." Mohney added, "Quite a few females are qualified to respond to incidents. Everybody must have base and refresher courses, regardless of their position and qualifications, and each practice fire shelter deployment."
"Every firefighter is tested annually with a Pack Test, where they must carry a 45 pound pack three miles in less than 45 minutes. To take this fitness test they must be cleared by their doctor," To explained. "Each year in February training is given in safety, weather and how it affects fires, fire behavior and incident command structure defining who is in charge of what." The same qualifications are required for personnel participating in prescribed burns, which are used to reduce fuel and therefore fire danger.
Once a firefighter has committed themselves, he or she must be packed and ready to go with only a couple of hours notice. A pack may not weigh more than 65 pounds, and must contain all the personal essentials to be self-sufficient, except for food and water, for up to 14 days. Heavy or bulky gear, like chain saws and shovels are provided at the scene.
Mohney said, "A typical crew assignment is a 14-day detail, with two days of R and R (rest and recreation) to manage fatigue before going back on the availablity list. It is normally longer before returning to firefighting because they still have work and family commitments." She added that these are guidelines for all agencies, and it allows for the rotation of fresh personnel.
To noted that the ANF has two or three people currently out on fires, but it is still early in the fire season. Mahoney added that the western fires are typically more numerous from late July through August, where the eastern fires tend to be in the spring and fall. She said, "This year Alaska has a lot of activity. The National Preparedness Level, which indicates demand for resources is currently at level 3, on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest)."