Download: Letter from Congress

Members of Congress appear to be concerned the U.S. Forest Service is losing too many of its Southern California firefighters.

An item in the massive $555 billion spending bill President Bush signed this week instructs the Forest Service to prepare a proposal by Feb. 1 to improve recruitment and retention of firefighters in Southern California's national forests.

Firefighters in the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are on the front lines of wildfires in places like the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests.

"I see that as positive," Mike Dietrich, fire chief for the San Bernardino forest, said of the recruitment and retention proposal.

The item, inserted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., calls on the Forest Service to present its plan to the House and Senate appropriation committees by the February deadline.

The San Bernardino National Forest, the nation's most urbanized forest, lost 60 of about 210 firefighters from October 2006 to mid-May, Dietrich said.

He said the defections have slowed since then, but that he's nervous about what will happen during the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's next hiring round.

The CDF had almost 500 vacancies as of Nov. 1. A number of Forest Service firefighters said they have

applied to the CDF and that many of their colleagues have done the same.

Forest Service firefighters have a number of complaints about how they are treated, but the gap between their salaries and those of other firefighters' arguably is the most significant.

Base pay for a firefighter in the Angeles National Forest is $32,000. It's $50,000 in the CDF and $60,000 in the San Bernardino Fire Department.

Earlier this year, six members of Congress with districts near the Angeles National Forest wrote a letter to the chief of the Forest Service, Abigail Kimbell, and the forest's supervisor, Jody Noiron, asking how the Forest Service is addressing retention problems.

According to the letter, because of personnel problems, only 60 percent to 70 percent of fire engines in the Angeles National Forest are regularly staffed.

"With large and difficult fires more likely, and more and more homes and businesses on the forest edge, it is exceptionally important that the National Forest system maintain enough trained, experienced fire crews to keep the forests and surrounding communities safe," the letter reads.

Earlier this month, the Forest Service's California region held meetings to discuss the retention problems. No report has been released from those meetings. Dietrich said he has heard very little about what was discussed.

The report should be released within two weeks, said Forest Service regional spokeswoman Janice Gauthier. The information in that report could be used to meet the Feb. 1 deadline, she said.

"I think this group has taken a good analytical look," Gauthier said.

Casey Judd, business manager of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters, said he is happy Congress is starting to listen to firefighters. But he is not optimistic the Forest Service will improve unless Congress "takes the reins" of the fire program from the Forest Service.

Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, said firefighter retention is a top priority.

"It's a matter of public safety," Maney said. "We just want to make sure they have everything they need."