CALIFORNIA FIRE CREW
Brant Ward  /  San Francisco Chronicle
A California Corrections crew on Monday clears brush from a fire in Sonoma County. The fire is one of only a few burning in the West, making it hard for seasonal fire crews to get work.
updated 9/7/2004 6:06:20 PM ET 2004-09-07T22:06:20

After coming off the lines of a wildfire in Northern California, the men on one of Grayback Forestry’s contract firefighting crews had to go back to the less glamorous — and less lucrative — job of cutting and piling brush on federal forest land.

“It’s good it’s not a big fire season, because a lot of people are not losing their homes,” said Jerry Lawrence, 19, as he stopped to gas up his chainsaw on a steep hillside in Oregon. “But it’s not as good money.”

The 2004 wildfire season in the lower 48 states has been a dud for the private firefighting industry and the men and women who make good money rushing off to hotspots. Despite dire predictions of a catastrophic fire season, the acreage burned is about two-thirds below average.

“I’m doing lots of pacing,” said Bob Ferguson, vice president of Ferguson Management Co. in Albany, which has 16 20-person firefighting crews around the West. “The work has been very scarce. You just keep working and trying to stay organized so if we get the call we’re ready to go.”

Triple the crews
Private firefighting crews are called in as needed by state, federal or regional firefighting agencies. Because of bigger and more intense wildfires in the past few years, the number of private, 20-member crews in the United States has tripled to more than 300.

But outside Alaska, the number of wildfires nationally is running a little below average this season at about 55,300, while the number of acres burned is way off — 1.3 million acres compared with an average of 3.7 million acres by Sept. 7 over the past 10 years. Part of it can be attributed to a greater effort to catch fires early and keep them small, part to weather.

“During fire season you learn to put away some money for that slow time,” said Grayback crew boss Will Howell, 24, who has only nine days fighting fire this year. “You look at the last three years, they were incredible seasons. We’d start in May or June. The average season we start in mid-July. That throws you for a loop when you get used to that.”

Typically, piling brush pays about $608 a week, and $744 a week for firefighters operating a chainsaw, according to Grayback Forestry owner Mike Wheelock. Wildfires offer longer hours and more overtime — up to 12 hours a day seven days a week, for 14 straight days. Wheelock said a firefighter might make $880 for working six days straight — $968 if he is running a chainsaw.

Thinning throwback to the ’70s
Wheelock, a former smokejumper who is one of the old-timers in this business, tries to get his crews enough forest-thinning work when firefighting is down.

“Back in the ’70s, that’s what they did, had a lot of brush disposal crews that cleaned up the forest,” he said. But the amount of work declined because of environmental restrictions aimed at protecting fish and other wildlife. “Hopefully, the Healthy Forests Act will start bringing that back — putting private workers and government agencies to work.”

Enacted last fall, the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act eases environmental restrictions on thinning public forest land to reduce the threat of wildfire.

Rick Dice, owner of Patrick Environmental, is also hoping the Healthy Forests Act leads to more forest-thinning work and gives his crews something to do when they are not fighting wildfires.

“We may not look the same next year as we do this year, but we’ll survive,” said Dice, who has been in business since 1971. “I’ve been surviving a long time at this, so we’ll survive.”

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