Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fires, death, and money

Four fire fighters died last week in a helicopter crash on the Payette National Forest in Idaho. There were no large fires in the area, but they were being shuttled around via helicopter anyway.

Fire fighting is big business, and it's a huge portion of the Forest Service's budget. A lot of money comes to town once a fire gets big enough.

A friend tells me of Forest Service fire fighters who made up to $50,000 a year, and spent the five month off-season in a beach cabin in Thailand collecting unemployment.

The base pay for a fire fighter is between about ten and thirteen dollars an hour, but this can be collected 24 hours a day during the periods they are on call, which can be for weeks at a time. Hazard pay is double, and overtime accrues on top of that. As my friend tells me, "that is why the incentive to start a fire is so high."

It's also a huge bureaucracy. Counterpunch this week has an excellent piece by Felice Pace on the insane, expensive, dangerous, and ineffective militarized approach to wildland firefighting, here.

Louise Wagenknecht's classic article in High Country News, "The Year it Rained Money," remains the high point of honest writing about wildland fire fighting.

I suspect, however, the public will never tire of the approved, saccharine, master-narrative: Devastating fire wreaks death and destruction, brave young men and women from all over the country work tirelessly to save rural homes, local girl-scouts deliver cookies and toiletries to grubby fire fighters, townsfolk post banners in their windows thanking the fire fighters, weather eventually cooperates, fire is out, congratulations all around.

Then, four years later, inevitably come the articles expressing surprise and amazement at the new life in the burn area.


Anonymous said...

You are correct about the base pay of firefighters being around $10 -13 an hour. After that your are a bit off. Federal wildland firefighters do not get paid 24 hours a day when they are away from home on a fire. The most they get paid for is 16 hours a day. Firefighters who are at home and on call are not paid. (they are only paid for the 8 hours they work) Hazard pay is not double; it is an additional 25%. Many firefighters work hundreds of hours of overtime. (hotshots often more than 1000 hours) It’s hard, dangerous, and extremely physical work. If they work enough hours OT to make $50,000 is well deserved money.

Anonymous said...

Actually, they weren't firefighters, but Forest Rangers. It is still unclear according to news reports why they were out there. Maybe they were going to help; maybe they weren't.
But I knew one of the women who passed away and her family. At least in her case, she was being shuttled to her post within Peyette National Forest of which was on a volunteer basis.

As of yet, they don't know why the helicopter crashed but it might be better to get all information before tossing their deaths away.