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

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Jeff Holland, owner of CTL Forest Management, arrives at his company in Diamond Springs on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Holland is a former VIPR contractor for the U.S. Forest Service. (Renée C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/TNS)

By Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee

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.

Rusty Stanford, a Modoc County businessman who has supplied water trucks to the agency, said it appeared the Forest Service was trying to streamline the operation and work with fewer contractors. “They pretty much shot themselves in the foot,” he said.

The state’s elected officials have begun taking notice. Last month Republican Congressman. Doug LaMalfa said shortcomings in the system — known as VIPR, for Virtual Incident Procurement — contributed to the severity of California’s wildfire season.

The agency’s “failure to fill VIPR contracts this year has led to a severe lack of equipment and fire personnel,” LaMalfa said in a statement. “That failure made the wildfire destruction in California much worse.”

LaMalfa — whose district includes the area burned by the North Complex fire, which killed 15 people in Berry Creek — said he’s been assured that the Forest Service is working on fixing the problem. Nonetheless, when a top Forest Service official appeared at a virtual congressional hearing in late September, the congressman grilled him about contracting snafus.

“If you wanna have a state of readiness, there’s so much private equipment,” LaMalfa told John Phipps, a deputy chief at the Forest Service. “I drove past some in Siskiyou County today. There’s still about 20 water tender trucks sitting along the freeway there that are not being contracted.”

Phipps acknowledged “technical and administrative issues” with the system but promised LaMalfa the “contracting issues have pretty much subsided.”

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When President Donald Trump’s administration rejected California’s request this month for $346 million in wildfire assistance — only to reverse itself less than two days later — it underscored the tension between state and federal officials over wildfire policy.

Trump at times has threatened to withhold wildfire help, saying California must do a better job of managing its forests to reduce wildfire risks — a statement that ignores the fact that the Forest Service and other federal agencies control 57% of California’s forestland.

Although Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Trump administration jointly pledged in August to manage forests more aggressively, the uneasy relationship persists — as highlighted by the aftermath of the destruction of Berry Creek.

Some state and local elected officials noted that the North Complex, originally known as the Bear fire, had been burning for three weeks in the Plumas National Forest before it rushed into Berry Creek. Why, they asked pointedly, wasn’t it contained sooner?

Forest Service officials said they were doing the best they could with limited equipment and manpower. A freak lightning storm in mid-August left California with a series of major wildfires, and the Forest Service had to shift resources almost daily as circumstances changed.

“We’re still in a critically short supply,” agency spokesman Bruce Prud’homme said at the time. “Where the fire has the greatest threat is where we put the greatest effort.”

Since 2009, the Forest Service has relied on the VIPR system (pronounced “viper”) to bring in private contractors when wildfires erupt. About 1,200 companies have contracts with the agency in California, said Forest Service spokesman Jonathan Groveman.

Exactly how many pieces of equipment were on call for the 2020 fire season — and whether that changed from prior years — is difficult to say. Because contractors can adjust the availability of their equipment, “it is hard to do a snapshot in time,” Groveman said.

He said the program hasn’t been run any differently this year and dismissed suggestions that the Forest Service set out deliberately to reduce the number of contracts. He also disputed the idea that the Forest Service’s actions made the wildfire season worse.

“This year in California we have had 8,486 wildfires that have burned 4.1 million acres,” he said in an email. “During this same time, there were extensive and destructive wildfires throughout the West. This amount of fire activity will always result in resource limitations.”

The agency did face some hiccups this year, he said. A contractor’s protest over procedures for inspecting equipment held up the awarding of VIPR contracts for certain types of heavy machinery. The agency was able to work around that problem by signing emergency contracts, he said.

Yet contractors said in interviews that the problems mainly lie in a system that’s grown unworkable. Dennis McGarr, who’s supplied his water truck to the Forest Service for years, said he got shut out this season because the agency neglected to send him a solicitation form on time.

“I never miss a contract opportunity,” said McGarr, who runs a power equipment company in Bieber, Lassen County. “It’s extremely weird — it’s almost like it was intentional.”

The controversy over the VIPR program seemed to come to a head in early September, when LaMalfa convened a town hall meeting in Red Bluff with Jim Hubbard, the undersecretary of the Forest Service’s parent agency, the Department of Agriculture. At least a half dozen truck and equipment operators came forward with stories of how unwieldy the system has become. Some said they’ve lost contracts over seemingly small problems with their bids.

Afterward, Groveman said, the Forest Service “took immediate action” and dispatched a strike team of contracting officers to sign emergency deals. “We signed up as many as were available,” Groveman said.

Some contractors refused the offers of emergency work, saying they were frustrated with the agency.

“I giggled this summer when they were calling, begging for equipment,” said Lucky Ackley, a Modoc County rancher who has supplied bulldozers and other equipment to the Forest Service in previous years. “It finally dawned on them that they didn’t have enough equipment.”

Ackley said he lost his contracts this year because “I missed one email” and other minor problems — the kind of things that he said would have been reconciled in prior years. “The computers are running the show; there’s no humans running the ship.”

When the Forest Service contacted him in September about emergency contracts, Ackley and his father, who’s his business partner, decided to rent their equipment to Cal Fire instead.

“We’re both done with the Forest Service,” he said.

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Contractors can get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year supplying equipment to the Forest Service. Thomas Traphagan, a bulldozer owner from Lassen County, said the agency paid him $3,200 a day for a pair of dozers when the Claremont fire began threatening Quincy in August. He and his crew worked sporadically on the fire for weeks.

It might sound like a lot to someone outside the system, but Traphagan said he could earn a lot more hiring out his equipment for road construction. As for the Forest Service work, “I’m not getting rich on it,” he said.

Some contractors are finding the Forest Service an increasing source of irritation.

For Ben Sale, it’s about water trailers. The owner of Ben’s Truck & Equipment in Red Bluff, he’s spent the past decade supplying the Forest Service with water trucks outfitted with custom-made trailers that can store additional water.

For years the Forest Service welcomed Sale’s use of the trailers. “It’s more water,” he said.

This year, though, the agency told him to leave the trailers at home — leaving Sale mystified.

“I never got an answer, outside of they’re just too much problem with the paperwork,” Sale said. “They didn’t want the hassle, I guess.” Sale continues to use the trailers on trucks he supplies to Cal Fire.

Drew Crane, meanwhile, was geared up to fight the August Complex fires in Northern California.

Crane, the owner of Crane Mills, a logging company in Tehama County, had equipment parked at his firm’s shop in Paskenta, barely 40 minutes from where the fire was burning on the Mendocino National Forest.

“We could see the flames from the shop,” he said. “We were sitting there in our shop, all lined up, ready to go.”

Trouble was, Crane no longer had a contract to work for the Forest Service. His application to renew his old contract hadn’t been renewed for reasons that are unclear to him. “It just sat in purgatory on someone’s desk, is my guess,” he said.

The August Complex eventually burned 1 million acres, more than any other fire in California history — and took out 47,000 acres of timberland controlled by Crane. He believes if he’d been allowed to deploy his equipment, he could have saved some of that property.

“It defied belief,” he said.

Crane said the rejection confirmed his suspicions that the Forest Service’s contracting system, flawed to begin with, had become seriously broken at the very moment that the demand for firefighting equipment was greater than ever. “All of its shortcomings were amplified this year by overwhelming need,” he said.

Jeff Holland, whose offer of equipment for the Loyalton fire was similarly rejected, isn’t sure if he’ll work for the Forest Service again.

The agency did call him a few times this summer to help fight fires, but he refused. The reason, he said, was the Forest Service only wanted to hire one piece of equipment — a situation that wouldn’t pencil out financially for him.

What he’s hoping for is a thorough revision to the agency’s contracting operation — an overhaul that he thinks is increasingly necessary as California’s wildfire risks intensify.

“This state shouldn’t lose 4 million acres of ground due to anything,” he said. “I hope they fix their system, because we can’t have too many more years like this.”

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(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee ( Sacramento, Calif.)

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