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National Forests Thin on Senior Staff

On some days swaths of California's flammable national forests are protected by nothing more than luck. On an average day, about 40 out of 271 Forest Service fire engines stay in firehouses rather tha

On some days swaths of California's flammable national forests are protected by nothing more than luck. On an average day, about 40 out of 271 Forest Service fire engines stay in firehouses rather than on patrol, because of a shortage of supervisors in the state. An exodus of highly trained firefighters from the career ranks of the service has left the federal agency with fewer people qualified to run engines, oversee forests or command large fire operations.

Some firefighters fear those gaps could strain the ability of fire crews to respond quickly, leading to more out-of-control blazes during a tough fire season.

Nationally, fire planners are dealing with the departure of a generation of top managers hired during a firefighting expansion in the late 1970s.

California has been hit harder than other states, because the high cost of living deters recruits from moving here.

Forest Service officials have filled nearly 800 positions since last October, but are still short about 470 people.

The hardest-hit areas include the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests, where about a third of engines are regularly staffed because there are too few qualified supervisors to go around.

Those forests border on heavily populated urban areas, potentially raising the risk to people living nearby.