Utah's grasslands and forests are as dry as they've been for possibly 100 years, according to some federal land management officials who are gearing up for a potentially busy fire season.
The Bureau of Land Management has trained seasonal 20-member crews in each of its five districts in the state; and the Forest Service is at the tail end of a training period for its new firefighting recruits.If the predictions and dry weather patterns hold, the firefighters could easily spend the summer fighting more fires than occurred in 1989, when agencies spent $8 million to $10 million fighting wildfires in the state.
Full-time federal employees with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are undergoing firefighter training along with outside recruits who were solicited as early as January for the summer fire season.
The Forest Service is also building a list of trained reserves who can be called out on short notice, said Jim Cook, fire management officer for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Also standing ready is the Interagency Fire Center near the University of Utah, where dispatchers are waiting to get the first call of the season. Out back, large trailers and a warehouse are packed with enough gear to clothe, sleep, feed and equip 1,000 firefighters, according to center Manager Pete Hansen.
About half of the BLM and Forest Service personnel are trained as firefighters and can be called away from their regular jobs when firefighting needs arise.
The federal agencies also have a pool of seasonal firefighters who are the first full-time firefighters in line to respond to a fire. New recruits, both from inside and outside the federal agencies, go through basic firefighting training at the beginning of each season. But 85 percent to 90 percent of the seasonal firefighters this year are returning from previous years, said Jim Hammond, aviation and logistics coordinator in the BLM's state office in Salt Lake City.
If a fire gets beyond the controlling agency's ability to fight it, "we recruit actively from other agencies on a fire-by-fire basis," Hammond said.
Aside from this season's increased potential for forest and wildland fires, the only difference in staffing strength is seen at regional coordination centers, like the one in Boise that serves Utah, where large caches of equipment are kept and additional workers are added to control the movement of fire crews from state to state.
The seasonal recruits come from "the complete spectrum of the American population," Hammond said, but teachers are especially popular firefighting recruits because many have the summer off.
A beginning firefighter's base salary for three months would be about $3,000, but with the overtime and hazard pay that accompanies a busy fire season, the pay shoots way up. "Young teachers can make just about as much in a good fire season as they can teaching during the rest of the year, so they come close to doubling their income," said Hammond.
"Farm kids" are also popular recruits. "They are used to working outside, and the job usually pays more than working for dad," Hammond said.
Others in the fire camp use the summer's firefighting earnings to support them for the rest of the year.