The relationship between federal and state fire organizations and the private wildland firefighter contract industry began in the early 1980’s—an era of
shrinking agency budgets and a growing incidence of wildland fires. Prior to that, almost 30 years of the wettest and coolest period in the last 100 years led the U.S. Forest Service to reduce its firefighting capacity from 1,200 to 500 crews.
However, since 1980, drought, altered fuel complexes, and the expansion of the urban wildland interface have dramatically affected fire frequency, size and intensity. The fires of 2006, for example, burned over 10 million acres, consuming nearly 80 percent of federal suppression expenditures and 41 percent of the Forest Service budget for that year. This situation is further exacerbated by a budget-driven reduction in agency forces over the last 18 years. By the end of the 1990’s, these events led to the first crew agreement between private wildland fire services and the agencies.
The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution. Training, insurance costs, benefits, gear and transportation are all borne by the contractor.
Today, approximately 40 percent of the resources across the United States are provided by private wildland fire services. NWSA represents more than 150 private sector contract companies in 16 states that can field a work force of around 12,000 during the height of fire season.
NWSA Board President Rick Dice emphasizes that the role of the private sector is to complement, rather than compete with existing agency resources when fire activity and other emergency incidents, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Shuttle recovery operation, exceed organizational capacity.