Western states scrambling for more firefighters

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2015
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Western states scrambling for more firefighters

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2015
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Ten western states and the federal government are struggling to contain wildfires, but they are running short on firefighters. The National Guard is participating, and some active-duty military are getting last-minute training to join by Sunday.

Tina Boehle, a public information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center, says smoke is even clogging the air near their headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

“I can’t even see the foothills, which are a only few miles away,” she says. The fire center coordinates logistics among state and federal agencies to help organize the response to wildfires. Boehle says almost 30,000 people, including firefighters and support staff, are struggling against the western fires.

“We have crews from the eastern states, the Midwest, the south, coming down from Alaska, as well as from Canada,” she says. Several dozen firefighters from Australia and New Zealand are set to arrive on August 23 to join the fight as well.  

Regular fire houses have skeleton crews while their staffs heads to the burning forests. 

“We have employees that are on the duty for 20 to 25 days in a row with no days off,” says Mike Lopez, the president of Cal Fire Local 2881, part of a union representing many California firefighters. With staff being pulled away from their normal stations, Lopez says many are missing time with their families, adding additional stress to the grueling work.

Some 4,000 prisoners are also helping, says Bill Sessa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as part of a program that’s been going on since the 1940s.

“When [the inmates] are on the fire line, they do everything that a trained firefighter would do to fight a wildland fire,” he says.

Prisoners can earn up to $26 a day, which Sessa says is pretty good for prison pay.

 

This story was updated to reflect the fact negotiations Thursday to bring firefighters from Australia and New Zealand to the U.S. were successful.

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