WASHINGTON, DC–The U.S. Forest Service’s heavy dependence on contract firefighting services is causing the agency’s budget to spin out of control, according to agency records released by the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Forest Service has already overspent its $360 million annual firefighting budget by more than $240 million and the latest agency estimates indicate the overrun will exceed $500 million by the end of the fire season.
Presently, approximately 70 percent of Forest Service fire suppression expenditures are for contracted resources, such as aircraft, hand crews, engines, caterers, water tenders, bulldozers, camp crews and casual hires. Ballooning firefighting expenditures stem primarily from extensive use of high-price, cost-plus contracts. According to the records released by NFFE and PEER,
Contract hand crews receive a daily rate that is approximately twice that of the Hot Shots, the agency’s best in-house crews;
The Forest Service’s Accountability Report and Action Plan for 2003 cite unacceptably high fire suppression costs directly related to the high number of current contractors. Another recent agency study reveals that when using contractors to replace Forest Service personnel, costs in California alone have almost doubled (from $7 million to more than $13 million);
Once the Forest Service became reliant on contracts for aircraft availability, costs have escalated well beyond inflation.
In addition, the Forest Service lacks sufficient agency personnel to adequately oversee current contracts. This inability to manage its firefighting contracts has led to contractor abuses and fraud, thus further driving up costs.
Despite problems associated with its extensive reliance on contractors, the Forest Service is considering replacement of between 5,000 and 10,000 fire fighters with private contractors by FY 2006 in order to meet President Bush’s mandate that all federal agencies review at least half of all positions classified as potentially commercial for outsourcing.
“It is clear that the heavy dependence upon contractor firefighting resources is a major contributing factor to the high costs of suppressing wildfires,” stated Bill Dougan, President of the Forest Service Council of NFFE. “It doesn’t make economic sense to continue to promote and even increase the use of contract crews when the government can go out and hire government employees to do the work cheaper.”
Because Congress has not approved supplemental appropriations, the agency is covering the fire overruns by diverting money from its other programs.
“These firefighting contracts are eating the Forest Service alive,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Contract firefighting is sucking all available funds, preventing the Forest Service from the restoration, habitat protection and even fire prevention work it is supposed to be doing.”