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Private Firefighter Companies Grow Alongside Wildfires

It may be autumn in a couple of days but wildfire season isn't slowing down. People living in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah remain evacuated from their homes because of nearby wildfires. And the flames are fueling another thing-private firefighting companies.

Mike Wheelock is the President and Founder of the private company Grayback Forestry. He said this wildfire season has not been an easy one.

"Probably in my forty some years of fighting fires, [this is] probably the worst fire season I've seen," he said.

Grayback Forestry used to fight fires about two to three months a year, and then spend the rest doing things prescribed burns. But now, they fight fires around eleven months a year. Grayback contracts with government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. But Wheelock said they also have individual clients. Last season, they helped protect wineries from fires in the Napa Valley.

"Some of them are 25 million dollar buildings," said Wheelock. "And there was just no one to protect them, so they retained our services."

Wheelock applauds congressional action this year to increase funding for firefighting. He hopes that will mean there will be less of a reliance on private companies like his, so they can spend more time on fire prevention like controlled burns. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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