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Fire Managers Increasingly Turn To Private Fire Crews To Fight Blazes

Len DIaz, Washington Interagency Incident Management Team. Crews monitor burnout operations in the area of the Colockum Tarps Fire

With wildfires still raging across the Northwest, fire managers are turning to private fire-fighting crews in increasing numbers. One private industry group says private contractors are responsible for a surprising 40 percent of firefighters on the ground in the region.

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry said that 40 percent figure sounds about right. But the shift didn't happen overnight.

The Oregon Department of Forestry's Rod Nichols says the change started in the 1980s. Before a downturn in the timber industry, logging companies often had their own fire crews. And there were more federal forest workers as well.

But Nichols says as those numbers dwindled, fire managers had to be creative. "They'd just literally go to the nearest towns to the fire and kind of go to the town square and say 'Does anybody want to fight fire?' You know, it worked sometimes. But obviously it wasn't a long-term solution."

So the Oregon agency drew up contracts with private professional fire-fighting crews. The practice expanded and now ODF oversees contracts for fighting wildfires on federal and state lands in Oregon and Washington.

At least on paper, the private crews have to meet minimum federal training and safety standards.