No smoke, no fire 

Slow season scorches firefighters' paychecks

Indian reservations and depot communities hit the hardest by easy weather

There are no red skies over Montana this year. The unusually slow fire season has graced the region with clean air this summer, but left forest firefighters desperate for work.

For thousands of state, federal and Indian workers who depend on summer hazard and overtime pay to bolster their annual wages, the summer's gentle weather means many will have to endure a lean winter. Heavy snows, spring rains and the lack of dry lightning have made this fire season a bust so far, according to the National Fire Information Desk in Washington, D.C.

In the Northern Rockies, fires dropped by 97 percent this year, scorching only 6,023 acres. In comparison, by this time in 1996, fires had raged across more than 170,000 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

For the most part, it's a situation that's mirrored throughout the country. Subtract the million acres of fires burning freely in Alaska's tundra, and the national totals are almost a million acres below the decade's average.

Good news for tourists, bad news for firefighters and suppliers. Small towns often experience random influxes of sudden cash when blazes flare up nearby, but no one's profiting from fire this season.

Depot communities, like Missoula and Boise, Idaho, that supply the needs of regional firefighting activities are losing a substantial amount of money, says economist Tom Power of the University of Montana. "When there comes an emergency, people are pressed into work," he says. "The towns supply lodging and materials and cater food. Plus, they dry-clean sleeping bags and wash clothes."

The economic effect is most devastating on Indian reservations. Blackfeet firefighters brought home about $3 million last year and nearly $7 million in 1994, according to Calvin Herrera, fire management officer of the Blackfeet Agency. "The merchants in Browning, Cut Bank and Great Falls usually are calling me by this time wondering why the firefighters aren't spending any money in their stores," he says.

Montana Indian Fire Fighters (MIFF), organized under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, are paid only when dispatched to a fire. About 400 people on the Blackfeet Reservation waited through the summer months to get the call. There were no dispatches as of the end of August.

"When we get a big call it turns into a real community event," Herrera says. "Families drop off their firefighters and often follow the buses out of town a ways to wave goodbye. But everybody's pretty disappointed this year. A lot of people depend on firefighting for their base wage because of the high unemployment rate on the reservation."

It's the same on the Ft. Belknap Reservation in north central Montana, according to Fire Control Officer George Stiffarm, who says he has 340 idle workers. "It's the only chance for some here to make money," Stiffarm says. "In some families the husband, wife, daughter and son join the crews."

During a good year, MIFF crew members earn more than $10,000 each during a fire season that lasts from June to early October. But not this year. "There'll be no money for school clothes for the kids," says Bruce Littledog, of the Blackfeet Hotshots crew. "Plus no money for college."

Normally, firefighters put in enough time to qualify for unemployment benefits over the winter months. But with no fires, workers haven't been able to rack up the requisite number of hours. As a result, many may be forced to turn to public assistance. "A lot of people may be forced onto welfare this year," Herrera says. Reservation firefighters, he says, are picking up work where they can­on construction sites or road crews­but many keep an eye on California and Washington fires, hoping soon for a call to board the rented yellow school buses.

Federal seasonal firefighters aren't faring as poorly as the MIFF crews, but many must adjust their standards of living after a slow fire season. "I probably won't be putting a deck on my house this winter," says Sabino Archuleta, a Missoula smokejumper originally from the Frenchtown-area. "I still may travel some, but not as expensively."

Like most federal firefighters, smokejumpers are paid 40 hours a week to remain on call. Many plant trees, prepare prescribed burn areas and clean up hiking trails when they are waiting for fire weather. They can also be loaned to other regions across the country when fires grow out of control elsewhere. Base firefighting wages range from $7.15 an hour for rookie groundpounders to $14.85 for a smokejumper foreman. Add 50 percent an hour for overtime, and 25 percent hazard pay when on a fire, and you've got yourself a living wage.

"These are some of the best paying jobs for unskilled labor in Montana," Power says. "They are heavily sought after."

Working straight through for four months, jumpers bring in about $8,000. During a good fire season they may rake in up to $16,000, according to smokejumper Wayne Williams. The 23-year veteran has spent most of this summer guiding tourists through the jumper base near the Missoula Airport.

"There are good and bad years and you adjust accordingly," he says. "A lot of jumpers still make enough money to do what they want to do during the winter. They can still make house payments, or go to school. It's not like we're crawling through the desert with no water."

Also affected by the slow season, perhaps more so than federal workers, are the state crews and initial attack groups assigned to district forests. Many of these crew members are college students trying to stay out of debt.

"I was expecting to make enough money to pay for my own apartment, school and auto insurance, but it looks like I'll have to work during school this winter," says Mandy Williams, a firefighter at the Ninemile Ranger District, 30 miles west of Missoula. "It's going to be a tough semester."

Non-students will also be making adjustments, says Kara Hagen, a state firefighter based in Missoula. "I'm used to putting enough money away to get through January," she says. "Now, I'll have to find a job as soon as the season ends."

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