Fires generally rage in Central Oregon in the summer. This year’s cooler weather was good news for many, but not for the firefighting business. // PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK ENVIRONMENTAL
The shortest summer in recent memory has left once-mighty private wildfire fighting companies struggling to survive amid massive layoffs.
Rick Dice, the president of PatRick Environmental and president of the board of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, has been in the fire suppression business since 1971, and he counts 2010 among the slowest fire years ever. Dice says most companies saw revenues plunge by more than half this year as federal and state agencies spent about $50 million less on fighting fires in Oregon than in a typical year. Many of those businesses will have a hard time staying in operation, he predicts.
“Businesses are going to suffer big time,” says Dice. “They’re going to have to do a lot of layoffs if they want to survive.”
Dice says he plans to lay off as many as 250 people, the first time he’s had to cut jobs in 20 years. The 2010 season came to a grinding halt for his company in early September, when early rains doused Oregon weeks earlier than usual. “A lot of times our season doesn’t end until Oct. 15 and it starts up in June or even May,” he says. “This year it didn’t start until August and it only lasted two weeks.”
The abrupt end of summer served as the latest dampener for an industry that grew from 62 20-man crews in 1994 to 175 in 2008, with about 4,000 seasonal employees. About two-thirds of the industry is based in Oregon, which led the trend toward privatization by shifting to on-call contract crews in the 1980s. But a less aggressive approach to firefighting on federal lands has cut into revenues, and competition has become fierce.
The lack of fire throughout the West also took its toll on Oregon aviation companies that attack wildfires from above, such as Columbia Helicopters, Evergreen Aviation and Erickson Air-Crane. Even when a serious wildfire broke out in early September in Colorado, Oregon air and ground crews were not called to the scene because plenty of local aircraft and crews were available nearby.