In response to the Oct. 21 article, “How fire burned Forest Service budget,” I’d like to add a component rarely spoken of regarding the utilization of private contractors in wildland fire suppression. The element I speak of is arson for profit.

I’m a retired criminal investigator who witnessed the evolution of firefighting in the U.S. Forest Service from the mid-1970s through early 2007. I began my firefighting service as a temporary summer hire. As I gained experience, I was eventually promoted to a more permanent position in fuels management. Soon my fire suppression duties took me across the nation as crew boss of a twenty-person crew. Back then fire camps were primitive by today’s standards — as often as not just a couple of squad tents hastily thrown together with no showers, no mobile laundromats, no personal tents and no air conditioning. We slept under the stars, and, if lucky, in paper sleeping bags supplied by the government.

On the fire line we had limited support and resources. As crew boss I had the authority to request air support, but I always carefully weighed the associated costs and benefits before doing so. Never did I consider putting on a “big show” just for the public’s viewing benefit. In the worst-case scenario, we had to make do with what we had. What we did have was a good understanding of fire behavior. We were well-trained, hardcore firefighters armed with hand tools and chainsaws. In the spring and fall, armed with drip torches, we lit prescribed burns. All in all, we were a pretty cheap and effective commodity. That all changed, in my opinion, when the Forest Service went to contract firefighters.

Later in my career, I joined the professional ranks of the organization as a special agent, where I was promoted and ultimately assigned to the Timber Theft Investigations Branch in the mid-1990s. It was there that I dealt with the uglier side of wildfire suppression — arson for profit. Realizing that arson has been around since mankind first discovered fire, it came as no surprise that a certain number of fires each year were intentionally set. It also came as no surprise that the number of suspected arson fires increased exponentially as the government went to private contractors. Now consider that government agencies loathe the “A” word and find every reason to dispute an investigative finding that might lead to a politically sensitive conclusion, be it timber theft or arson for profit. That fact alone makes it double-tough for an investigator to make an unbiased determination of a human-caused fire, causing many to remain officially undetermined.

For the record, during my career I have arrested or caused to be arrested Forest Service employees who were subsequently convicted and sent to prison on arson related crimes. It happens anytime money is a factor. Now imagine the complexity of the situation when the solvency of dozens or hundreds of privately-owned businesses, logging companies and others across the nation are heavily dependent on the timely ignition of a large-scale fire on public lands. It adds a distinctly unique variable to the equation.

I once overheard a contract employee engaged in snow removal operations refer to falling snowflakes as “pennies from heaven” and praying for more to fall. It was an innocuous comment given the time and place and the improbability that the weather could be substantially influenced by the hopes and prayers of one person. Conversely, consider how easily a similar, albeit slightly modified, prayer can be realized with the strike of a single match when fire suppression is your business or your job or your best hope of obtaining cheap government timber.

Tom Russell is a Vietnam veteran, retired Forest Service special agent and author of “Border Games.”

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