By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
LANSING — A shortage of trained fire officers in Michigan is reducing the capacity to fight and prevent forest fires on state land, according to a state official.
Money for salaries has been cut and there are no funds to hire more officers and not enough applicants to fill all the positions if money becomes available said Allan Keto, resource protection manager for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s (DNRE) Forest, Mineral and Fire Division in Marquette.
DNRE firefighters are retiring or moving out-of-state to find better positions, the president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs Doug Halstead of Burton said.
“We don’t carry a large force of full-time forest fighters. When you have something large, it’s going to require other people coming in to help,” Halstead said.
Uncontrolled fires could severely damage Michigan’s forest product industry, said MaLissa Hedger, executive assistant at the Michigan Association of Timbermen in Newberry.
Michigan consumers use almost twice the amount of wood that is harvested annually in the state, according to the association. Losing wood to fire would mean Michigan has to import more from other sources.
The forest products industry accounts for more than 150,000 jobs statewide, the association said and a large amount of fire damage may threaten those positions.
The loss of fire officers throughout the state could also affect local and national firefighting capabilities, said James Schmierer, a forestry instructor at Michigan Technological University.
Often, qualified DNRE officers work with local volunteer firefighters to combat house fires, Schmierer said. The same officers often get sent west to fight larger fires.
“It’s all the same group of people a lot of time that’s being tapped,” he said. That could lead to a ripple effect that might hurt the West Coast as well.
To help meet the state’s firefighting needs, Michigan Tech works with the DNRE, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service to provide basic forest fire training for students, Schmierer said. The course is offered during spring break so students can start working on teams the next summer.
“They’re not high-level folks,” Schmierer said, “but you gotta start somewhere.
“In general, there’s a shortage of natural resource professionals, and out of those, only a fraction learn firefighting as a specialty,” he said.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough interest among younger people to fill the holes, especially since the work tends to be hard and not pay as well as other careers like engineering, he said.
“These are not sit-on-your-butt jobs,” Schmierer added. “Its dirty, hard, physical work to fight fire.”
Keto said that the loss of trained personnel could make it harder to fight fires in some of the state’s hot spots. Those areas have a high potential for fire, determined by looking at fuel types, travel time, soil types, population and past fire activity.
For such areas, the DNRE has “special responses” that rely on other fire departments in the region for help.
For example, officers from the Upper Peninsula were dispatched to the Lower Peninsula to fight two major fires last summer, the Meridian Fire in Crawford County and a second range fire in Kalkaska County, Keto said.
It was a matter of redistributing existing resources to fight the fires and hoping the state didn’t get another fire at the same time, he said.
The practice of redistributing or pulling from local departments, to fight fires is not uncommon, Halstead said. Other states like Utah and California do it as well because they don’t have a large contingency of forest firefighters.
“If we were called, we would respond to the U.P. and help fight their fires,” Halstead said. “It’s not uncommon for firefighters to do both” forest and residential fires.
As for 2011, Schmierer said, the increase in rain and predictions of a good snow year are positive signs for a better season because the ground won’t be as dry as in 2010.