Senator Feinstein Raises Concerns Over Forest Service Firefighter Staffing in Southern California, Asks Officials for Detailed Plans to Beef Up Recruiting and Retention Ahead of Fire Season
-Says recent report fails to address key staffing issues in Southern California-
Apr 10 2008
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) this week urged the Forest Service to develop a plan to address serious staffing shortages in its firefighting corps in fire-prone Southern California.
In a letter to top Agriculture Department and Forest Service officials, Senator Feinstein raised concerns that a recent Forest Service report failed to acknowledge serious challenges facing the agency in fully staffing its Southern California firefighting corps.
Senator Feinstein directed officials to resolve these issues ahead of this year’s fire season. Specifically, she urged them to develop a concrete retention plan that provides short- and long-term solutions for filling critical firefighting vacancies and improving morale. Senator Feinstein set an April 30 deadline for officials to report back on her concerns.
Senator Feinstein’s letter follows an April 1 hearing of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies into the Forest Service’s Fiscal 2009 budget request. Senator Feinstein, chairman of the subcommittee, expressed concern at the time that the Bush Administration’s proposed cuts would reduce firefighter readiness in Southern California.
Following is the text of Senator Feinstein’s letter:
April 9, 2008
The Honorable Mark Rey
Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250
The Honorable Gail Kimbell
United States Forest Service
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Mr. Rey and Ms. Kimbell:
I am very concerned that the agency's recent report on firefighting recruitment and retention in Southern California fails to acknowledge serious challenges that the Forest Service faces in staffing its firefighting corps in the State.
The data in your report confirm that the agency does in fact have firefighter attrition rates on Southern California forests that exceed the agency's Statewide and national averages, particularly within certain pay grades and on certain forests like the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests. However, this analysis did not address the more important question of how many firefighting positions are unfilled during fire season because of employee attrition and other factors. It also fails to acknowledge the fundamental problem that Forest Service firefighter salaries in Southern California lag behind the pay of other State and local agencies with similar responsibilities.
Lastly, I am concerned that the final report's conclusions contradict a draft analysis currently circulating in the wildland firefighting community which confirms pay and retention disparities in Southern California, and includes a number of proposed recommendations to improve retention that have been omitted from the final report.
For all of the reasons outlined above, I take issue with the final report's conclusion that "perceptions around recruitment and retention in Southern California are hard to substantiate based on data," and I urge the agency to develop a concrete retention plan that provides both short- and long-term solutions for filling critical firefighting vacancies and improving morale.
During the agency's April 1st Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Undersecretary Rey committed that the agency would fully staff the Region's firefighting corps by the beginning of this fire season. To follow up on this commitment, I request that you provide me with a report by no later than April 30, 2008 that includes: (1) the agency's planned staffing levels for the Region's national forests for this fire season; (2) the number of positions that remain to be filled, and a date by which this will be accomplished; and (3) specific detail on retention initiatives that the Forest Service plans to implement, including a timeline for implementation. In addition, this report should also confirm whether the attached draft report was prepared by Forest Service personnel and, if so, explain why the Region's recommendations were not incorporated into the final report.
Although I recognize that efforts to improve firefighter morale and retention will require sustained focus and resources, I cannot stress too strongly the seriousness of this situation, and the fact that key areas of California's national forests are under threat of catastrophic fire. We must be prepared.
As Chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, I am committed to providing any additional assistance that the Service requires to resolve this issue. I would note that Congress has already provided the agency with flexibility, if necessary, to use suppression funds to implement firefighter retention recommendations within current budget constraints.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I look forward to receiving your response.
Chairman, Subcommittee on the
Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies