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U.S. Seeks Fire Help From Down Under

June 29, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration wants to bring in 100 experienced fire managers from Australia and New Zealand to enable the government to put 1,000 more people on the ground fighting wildfires in the West.

But before that can happen, those governments are demanding that they and their citizens be protected from lawsuits for firefighting mistakes. To alleviate such concerns, a House panel met Friday to try to speed passage of a bill by Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) to treat foreign firefighters as U.S. employees.

The panel heard testimony from administration officials and expects to vote on the bill in late July. The bill also would require that foreign countries extend the same courtesy to U.S. firefighters who go overseas to help out.

"Members of this committee, by virtue of acting on this bill, will also convey their gratitude to foreign firefighters," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration, border security and claims subcommittee.

Under the bill, foreign firefighters, the countries that send them and any groups associated with those firefighters would not be liable for errors in their firefighting activities, said Deputy Associate Atty. Gen. Paul Clinton Harris Sr.

The legislation would provide the same protection to U.S. firefighters who go to other countries, Harris said.

He said the bill still would allow lawsuits on claims against foreign firefighters, but the Justice Department would move to substitute the U.S. as the defendant and dismiss the foreign firefighters from such cases.

With wildfires raging in the West, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, says there is a pressing need for 100 more seasoned firefighters with experience as midlevel supervisors.

"The Australian states and New Zealand have these resources available and are willing to help," said Tim Hartzell, who directs the Interior Department's Office of Wildland Fire Coordination.

Adding 100 experienced supervisors from overseas would let U.S. officials hire an additional 1,000 firefighting recruits, Hartzell said.

Australia and New Zealand firefighters helped the United States during the 2000 fire season, the nation's worst in half a century, when nearly 1.4 million acres had burned at this point in the fire season. This year, it's 2.6 million acres.

"On the long-term outlook, with the drought continuing to be in the forecast, and the heavy fuel load in our forests, it does not bode well for the remainder of the fire season," Hartzell said.

In 2001, the U.S. had agreements with Australia and New Zealand, Hartzell said, but they were not put into effect because of concerns about potential lawsuits.

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