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Bulldozers were ready to fight California fires. Why did Forest Service turn them away?

By Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Loyalton fire was 2 days old and starting to pick up momentum in a heavily forested area 50 miles north of Lake Tahoe. That's when Jeff Holland offered to help.

Holland's logging company, CTL Forest Management Inc., happened to have an array of firefighting equipment — bulldozers, water trucks, a wood-chipping machine called a masticator — parked on a property he owns in Loyalton, just west of where the fire started in mid-August. He proposed hiring out the equipment to the U.S. Forest Service, which was in charge of fighting the fire.

He was turned down.

"I had several pieces of equipment ready to go," said Holland, who's worked with the Forest Service for years. "They weren't interested."

Within a few days, the Loyalton fire surpassed 40,000 acres and burned five homes down.

Holland said his equipment wouldn't necessarily have stopped the fire from spreading. But he believes the incident illustrates the problems plaguing the firefighting system at the Forest Service.

 

In particular, Holland said he's annoyed with a computerized program called VIPR that enables the agency to call on the private sector when help is needed on a fire. Hundreds of companies have signed up to supply the Forest Service with bulldozers to dig containment lines, water trucks to douse the flames and other equipment as needs arise.

Holland and other contractors say the Forest Service has been running the program a lot more stringently in the past year, turning what was already a complicated system into a bureaucratic mess. Bids have been getting rejected over minor paperwork issues that tended to get resolved in years past. Companies that had been working for the Forest Service for years were suddenly locked out of the system, with no ready explanation from the government.

The end result, contractors said, was the Forest Service found itself outgunned when the worst wildfire season on record exploded across California.

"The Forest Service wasn't ready to take on a fire season like this one," Holland said.

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