Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

Our department, for instance, charges the feds $75 an hour for what is known as a Type 6 engine. (The trucks go up in size as their designation number drops. Type 1s are bigger, urban pumpers. Type 6s are usually built on the back of heavy-duty pickup trucks or small flatbeds. They carry about 250 gallons of water, often some foam, and usually a crew of three.) This is a far lower price than other departments charge; some get as much as $125 an hour for the same piece of equipment.

That's nothing compared with the gulf between reimbursement rates of volunteer and paid departments. Because the rates are supposed to be based on the local department's costs, paid departments cash in by claiming whopping expenses. They point out that the three guys (or, for Type 1s, four) manning the engine could be gone for up to two weeks -- so each needs to bill at time and a half. Then they point out that the three guys on the truck need to be replaced by three guys back at the station. Naturally, those guys need to be paid overtime, as well. As a result, a Type 1 engine from an urban department can run taxpayers more than $320 an hour -- never mind that the urban trucks are among the least useful pieces of equipment on a wildland fire and that many city firefighters have little experience in the woods.

Wildfires can be a bonanza for local departments. West Metro, which covers the area west of Denver from Lakewood to Roxborough, reportedly tries to have a Type 6 engine out for most of the summer, collecting billable hours. One of West Metro's firefighters told me that the district expects to earn between $500,000 and $1 million this year alone.

Brian Stauffer
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.

Private contractors have discovered this trough, too. Everyone on a big fire -- from the caterers to the helicopters to the bulldozer operators to the guys who provide the porta-potties -- gets paid, and paid extremely well.

Caterers can earn a reported $40 per firefighter, per day. At its height, the Hayman Fire hosted nearly 2,500 firefighters and support staff. You do the math. (Never mind: That's $100,000 a day.) And more private firefighting companies, with private hand crews and private trucks, are getting in on the game. Bulldozers get $200 an hour and up -- and frequently spend days at a time sitting at a staging area, waiting for an assignment. Of course, that's for a ten-hour day. Anything over that is time and a half, or $300 an hour.

Wildland firefighters talk about how a big fire can create its own weather, but it's also true that a federal fire creates its own economy. Hell, even the commemorative-T-shirt salesman gets fifteen bucks a shirt.

A few days later, our engine is called to put out a small fire in front of a house in the West Creek subdivision. When we arrive, a black pickup with dual tires has already backed up to the flames. An elderly gentleman is unspooling hose from a jury-rigged tank-and-pump configuration he'd obviously just built on the back of his vehicle. At the nozzle, an overweight woman dressed in brand-new Nomex struggles with the hose.

We edge into position and quickly put out the fire. The man turns out to be a rancher from Montana. "Business there isn't too good these days," he admits. "Besides, we can make pretty good money doing this."

How much? I ask.

"One thousand eighty dollars a day," he replies. That's base. Overtime is where the real cash is.

One of my good friends discovered this early on. He had a fair amount of money lying around (I don't ask, and he doesn't offer to explain) and, after going on a few of these calls, splurged on 42 trucks, mostly Type 1 and Type 6 engines.

Next, he recruited a bunch of young men to man the trucks and paid for their red-card classes. "They don't have to be firefighters," he points out. "They just have to have a red card." (Even red-card instructors can make good money. A friend just took the course in Oregon along with another hundred or so students. The instructor said he made about $16,000 for the four-day ordeal.)

Then my friend called the government.

"It's pretty simple, really," he says. "Just like anything else in the government, they like a lot of paperwork, but the checks and balances are pretty weak."

He continues: "Despite what they say, the government prefers private contractors over public resources, for the simple reason that private folks can usually stay on the fire longer. Then, when they need you, they're desperate. They do the panic thing."

Fire resources in this area are dispatched out of an office in Pueblo, so, my friend claims, he "hired" an official down there as a consultant to ensure that his trucks would be at the top of the list when the call came. He charged about $2,400 a day for his urban engines, which translated to about $5,000 a day, including overtime; he collected more for a tender (what the fire service calls a water tanker truck).

The big urban engines were a particular moneymaker because of the slight wear and tear they get. A lot of the time, they're being trucked from fire to fire on lowboys. Even at fires, my friend notes, "they spend a lot of time at staging. For whatever reason, they seem to take two, three, four hours to move from place to place."

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