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Fighting Fires Is Big Business for Private Companies

Firefighting is an expensive business, and much of that business is going to private companies. Will they put profit over the environment?

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“There are a variety of things pushing the Forest Service in this direction” says Lawrence, “not least the political pressure that channels public concern over the threats from fire to communities and homes.” Fear of fire also makes it a lot easier for the agency to get funding from Congress, he says. “It would be naive to think that there wasn’t anybody in the agency who saw fire suppression as a meal ticket and more suppression as more meals.”

As the proportion of the agency’s budget spent on fighting fires grows, more of that money has ended up in private pockets. In recent years, private firefighting companies have often accounted for more than  40 percent of the agency’s fire suppression budget.

Much of the money is being spent on air tankers — among the most expensive weapons in the Forest Service’s arsenal. At fires across the US, these planes are used to dump gallons of bright red fire retardant, called “mud” or “slurry drops” by firefighters, to slow the advance of a fire. Airplanes used by the federal agencies are mostly contracted from private companies rather than owned by the government. Supporters of this arrangement say it’s a cheaper option than if the government maintained the planes itself, because it costs tens of millions of dollars to build and operate them. It’s a common argument in support of privatizing government services. There’s even a long-standing public law, known as “ The Pressler Law,” which in many cases prohibits government-owned aircraft from working on fires when the job could be done by commercial enterprise.

A senior Forest Service employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that “the private wild land firefighting lobby wields a lot of clout and in particular the folks that own the air tankers.” The employee, who has several decades experience working for the agency on wildfire issues, said that it was common for companies to contact legislators to ask them “why isn’t this piece of equipment being used?”

Lucrative contracts with the Forest Service are hotly contested by firefighting companies. With the agency looking to replace its aging fleet of airplanes, some dating back to the Korean War, interest from contractors has mounted. So too has their influence. According to the government watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics, several companies have lobbied the Forest Service on the issue of aerial firefighting, including  Lockheed Martin. The arms manufacturer built the original C-130 planes used to fly missions on wildfires, and lists “aerial firefighting” as a lobbying issue in its public disclosures. Lockheed Martin did not respond to several requests for an interview.

As the  climate changes, firefighting companies are predicting business opportunities will take off. “The fire situation in North America is nothing but getting worse and therefore you need some protective equipment and this tanker is amongst the best,” says Rick Hatton, owner of  10 Tanker LLC, a private firefighting company.

Hatton’s company currently has two planes contracted to the Forest Service. Its planes have reportedly flown over a thousand missions, including more than 30 missions this summer on the Rim Fire. The Forest Service pays about  $50,000 a day just to keep the planes ready on stand-by, and another $22,000 for every hour flown. The company is re-fitting a third aircraft, and has plans to acquire one more.

Asked if he thought that the federal government was using aerial firefighting enough, Hatton was clear: “Enough is never enough,” he said. “Obviously as a businessman I would like them to use more types of our airplane and company.”

 
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