Weeks into a capricious fire season that has already burned parts of Catalina Island, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe, swaths of California's flammable national forests are protected some days by nothing more than luck.
On any given day, about 40 out of 271 U.S. Forest Service engines in the state remain in firehouses rather than on routine patrol, idled by a shortage of supervisors as the combined effects of sustained drought, last winter's freeze and a searing heat wave send fire danger levels into "extreme" territory.
The cuts are one effect of an exodus of highly trained mid- and upper-level firefighters from the career ranks of the service, leaving 13 percent of the agency's 3,600 full-time positions in the state vacant.
Some firefighters fear those gaps could strain the ability of federal fire crews to respond quickly to fires, leading to more out-of-control blazes in what promises to be a tough fire season.
"When you start leaving holes in your organization so that on a given high-danger day you can't provide coverage you've set yourself up for trouble," said John Marker, a retired former Forest Service district ranger on the Sequoia National Forest.
Nationally, fire planners from all five federal agencies that handle firefighting are dealing with the departure of a generation of top managers hired during a firefighting expansion in the late 1970s, leaving behind too few career firefighters qualified to run engines, oversee forests or command large fire operations.
As forests from the Mexico border to Canada reassign engine crews, top-level teams working for other agencies are simply hiring recent retirees. Of 50 people working on one Nevada-based National Park Service squad, 10 are due to retire in the next two years, and a handful have come out of retirement as emergency hires this season.
"We haven't been able to fill out teams so we keep bringing back the old warhorses," said Paul Broyles, who heads the Nevada team. "There's a gap in the pipeline because we didn't get enough people in the pipeline in the 1980s, and there are fewer and fewer people who want to stay long enough to rise to the top."
California has been hit harder than other states, because the high cost of living has deterred recruits from moving here, while state and local agencies are replacing baby boomers as they hit age 50 and siphoning federal managers with higher pay and better benefits.
Forest Service officials have filled nearly 800 positions since last October, but are still short about 470 people.
"There are a lot of people lower down in the system who are five or six years away from being able to compete for leadership jobs," said Ed Hollenshead, regional director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service. "It's like a slinky - sometimes it's bunched up, but right now the slinky is stretched out."
The hardest-hit areas include the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests, where only 60 to 70 percent of engines are being regularly staffed because there are too few qualified supervisors to go around, according to Mike Dietrich, acting deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service's Region 5, which encompasses all of California.
Those forests border on heavily populated urban areas, potentially raising the risk to people living nearby.
"It's going to take them longer to get to these fires," said Doug Campbell, a retired Forest Service fire planner who now trains various agencies on fire behavior. "I don't want to predict what's going to happen, but my feeling is it's going to result potentially in more acreage (lost) and more large fires."
None of the big fires so far this season have gotten out of hand because of short staffing, and officials say they're confident California has enough resources available to get through the next six months.
With 1,600 seasonal hires, the Forest Service is fielding 5,200 firefighters this year. Chiefs on the state's 18 national forests, which cover about 20 percent of the state, can call on their counterparts in other federal firefighting units or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which has 8,400 people available this summer - including about 20 captains hired over from the Forest Service, said Ken McLean, deputy state director of fire protection.
The state's robust mutual aid system also activates thousands of engines working for myriad municipal and county departments in large fires.
Firefighting crews and equipment from other parts of the country are also being moved into California and the rest of the West, said Tom Harbour, the national director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service.
"We move those assets around to cover gaps in specific area, and the focus for us now is the West," Harbour said.
Despite the shortages of engine crews, the Forest Service's teams of smokejumpers and hotshots are filled. Engine crews are being moved around the state as weather-related fire risk levels change, Hollenshead said. The region has also won an extra complement of 15 federal helicopters to beef up capacity for initial attacks in the first crucial hours of a blaze.
The agency has also won approval to begin a massive hiring push starting next week to fill the roughly 470 captain, engineer, dispatcher and other specialist vacancies before the fall, Dietrich said. Those are the critical staff required to manage individual engines and direct the army of entry-level and seasonal "water-squirters" in fire prevention tasks once big fires hit.
In the meantime, retirees are being enlisted as emergency hires to help manage large fires this summer and train their replacements on the job - a tactic in use across the country, according to the National Incident Fire Command in Boise, Idaho. And others are being paid overtime to fill the gaps.
Of the 230 Forest Service engines that go out on daily patrol, as many as 40 are under the direction of captains working six-day weeks under a new overtime allowance from emergency funds, officials said.
Existing staffers are getting early promotions or being pressed into acting management positions.
"There'll be more people with more overtime this year," said Campbell. "But they've lost the wisdom that comes with fighting these fires year after year."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)