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Congress Seeks Plan to Boost Forest Service Vacancies in SoCal

Congress wants the U.S. Forest Service to boost hiring and retention of federal firefighters in Southern California, where the agency has experienced an exodus of experienced personnel.

Legislative language accompanying a year-end spending bill signed by President Bush this week directs the Forest Service to examine pay and personnel policies and come up with a plan to increase recruitment and retention for Southern California forests by Feb. 1.

 Lawmakers and firefighter advocates have complained that federal firefighters in California have been jumping ship to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection because the state pays more and has a better retirement package. Also, because Angeles National Forest is near Los Angeles, the cost of living is much higher there than for most national forests.

"The U.S. Forest Service is losing firefighters to other agencies in California. This is a serious problem that must be addressed, and we are working closely with the Forest Service on a long-term solution," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who authored the spending bill language, said Friday.

"California faces a real and growing threat from wildfires, and we must have a strong firefighting capability at all levels of government," she said.

Janice Gauthier, Forest Service communications director for California, said the agency was developing an action plan on the issue that should be ready next month.

"Really the goal is to recruit and maintain a continuum of skills in the firefighting ranks so that we have new folks coming in and we can invest in training them and so on, and all the way up to senior-level folks in the ranks as well," Gauthier said.

Gauthier said the Forest Service was analyzing the reason for departures and that some were due to attrition and normal retirements. She said she wouldn't assume the ranks were thinning because people were leaving for CalFire.

"We're not in competition with CalFire, we work very cooperatively with them," Gauthier said.

The ravaging fires of this past October, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes and blackened more than 800 square miles from Los Angeles County to the Mexican border, were mostly on state, county and private lands, though flames scorched the mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs in San Bernardino National Forest. The 2006 Esperanza Fire, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, was also in San Bernardino National Forest.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters help out under mutual aid agreements even when the fire is not on national forest land.

The legislative language reads in part: "The Appropriations Committees are aware that the Forest Service is facing challenges to recruit and retain wildland firefighters in Region 5 (California), particularly on Southern California forests, due to the agency's vastly different pay scales and personnel policies and the high cost of living in the region."

As of this past summer, some 13 percent of the service's 3,600 full-time positions in California were vacant.

According to Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, an advocacy group, staffing levels at Angeles National Forest were at half what they should have been during this past fire season.

"That impacts the citizenry," he said. "Hopefully with this language that will send a clear enough signal to the agency that they're under scrutiny now and they have to act."

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