by Mark Matthews

This summer, Kathy Hudak, 41, will be brewing barrels of beer rather than unhooking water buckets from helicopters for the Forest Service -- even though the agency has offered her a well-paying, seasonal job.

"I'm not going to let the U.S. Forest Service win at their game," says the veteran wildland firefighter, who now works at the Big Sky Brewery in Missoula.

The "game" involves the 3,500 new fire jobs that the Forest Service has been filling this summer to reach its maximum efficiency level of 10,000 firefighters, and a regulation called the MEA, or maximum entry age. Like the job Hudak has been offered this year, many of the new jobs are part-time, lasting from six to nine months; but unlike hers, they are classified as permanent and have health and retirement benefits.

Hudak, who has never received benefits in 10 years of seasonal work, applied for one of the new permanent jobs but was told she was too old. That's because of the MEA, a congressional provision passed in the 1970s that requires firefighters to retire at age 55. To receive full retirement benefits, a firefighter must log 20 years in a primary fire position. That means people older than 35 are ineligible to apply for the new jobs, no matter how much experience they have.

"They told me I was extremely qualified, but only as a seasonal," says Hudak. "I thought that was really bizarre. If I'm good enough for temporary work, then I'm good enough for permanent work."

The MEA rule affects at least 500 wilderness firefighters across the country, says Elizabeth Gupton, a 30-year Forest Service veteran in Region One and a representative of the National Federation of Federal Employees, part of the International Association of Machinists. It has heightened fears that fire crews will lack the crucial experience needed to avoid dangerous situations this summer. Two of the four firefighters who died in Washington's Methow Valley earlier this summer were rookies on their first field assignment, though federal investigators concluded that there was no link between their deaths and their level of experience.

"If every one of those [experienced] employees quit their fire jobs, we'd be in a world of hurt," Gupton says.

Federal officials say there are good reasons for the age restrictions. "The [MEA] system was devised to keep the average age of firefighters younger than the general population, because of the physical arduousness of the work," says Mark Beighley, a strategic fuels planner at Fire and Aviation headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We have not hired a lot of new people the last eight to 10 years, mostly because of budget cuts, and we've ended up with a work force that is top-heavy with older people. We have a lot of people slated to retire in the next five years. Now we're attempting to infuse younger employees into the system."

But others see the move to youth as unfair to some of the agencies' most loyal workers: "For years the agency has been dangling the promise of permanent jobs in front of these employees as a carrot," says Gupton. "Now we have younger people coming into permanent jobs and they are being trained by the more experienced temporary employees, who then become back-ups for the less experienced workers."

Fire managers across the country are also finding out that there aren't enough young qualified firefighters around to fill all the positions.

"There are no more qualified folks; we've used them up," says Chuck Mark of Montana's Lewis and Clark Forest. "Now all we've got is green folks, and there's only so many inexperienced people you can bring into the program without being overloaded with training."

Hundreds more "have dropped out of the game over the last few years because they saw it coming and went and got other jobs," Mark says.

The shortage of experienced fire managers was apparent during the extreme fire season of 2000, when the five federal land-management agencies enlisted fire personnel from Canada, Australia and New Zealand to fill holes in the U.S. ranks.

This year, the issue has intensified with the new money Congress appropriated for hiring additional firefighters. In April, John R. Obst, president of the Forest Service Council, a group of unions representing Forest Service workers, asked Secretary of

Agriculture Ann Veneman to waive the MEA. Veneman refused.

Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan has taken up the cause for older firefighters, asking his colleagues to sign a petition urging Secretary Veneman to waive the MEA. Says Stupak, "The Forest Service would greatly benefit from the ability to hire a ready pool of proven, experienced firefighters, and would offer a heightened level of safety for fire suppression."

But others warn that waiving the MEA will only create more problems in the long run. "There is no compelling reason to grant a waiver without once again screwing them at age 55 when they must retire, with a reduced retirement benefit," says Harry Croft, deputy director of Fire and Aviation. "They may not care about that now; they will when they approach 55."

For this fire season, older firefighters like Hudak face stark choices. Since Forest Service personnel are prohibited from partaking in work stoppages or strikes, their only choice is to refuse to accept appointments that lack benefits. Or, as Hudak says she is contemplating, to hire a lawyer and file a class action lawsuit.

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