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February, 2008

VDOF Employees Making the Case for Enhanced Retirement Benefit

Pictured: Virginia Department of Forestry firefighter at work.Fighting wildland fires is risky business with dangers lurking everywhere.  Besides the flames, firefighters must deal with smoke inhalation, downed trees, difficult terrain, physical stress, dehydration, equipment failure, long hours on the fireline, and a host of other issues that tax the body's ability to remain healthy as people age.

For several years, a group of Agency employees (Alan Craft, Steve Counts, Donnie Davis, Charlie Knoeller, Joe Lehnen, Alex Williamson, Dean Cumbia, Debbie Howe, John Miller, John Carroll and Jim Garner) has worked diligently to raise awareness of the inherent dangers associated with this career.  Their efforts have begun to payoff.

On Tuesday, January 29, the Virginia Senate Committee on Finance discussed three bills - SB-367, SB-491, and SB-599 proposed by Senators John Watkins, Emmett Hanger, and Thomas Norment, respectively - that would enable full-time VDOF employees who are engaged in active wildland firefighting to earn credits toward retirement.  The 16-member Finance Committee rolled SB-491 and SB-599 into SB-367 and voted to pass SB-367S1 unanimously.  On Friday, Feb. 1st, the bill was passed unanimously by the entire Senate and forwarded to the House of Delegates.

If this bill is passed by the full General Assembly, for every day (or portion of a day) an employee is actively fighting wildland fire, the employee would earn eight hours of retirement credit.  An employee who averages 52 days each year of wildland fire suppression would earn enough credits to retire at 25 years of service instead of the current 30 years.

Alan Craft, who retired from VDOF in December, said, "It's wonderful to see that our legislators are working to help Agency employees this way.  Fighting wildland fires at the age of 60 is not the same as it is when you are 28 years old.  The body isn't always physically capable of such demanding work at an advanced age.  Wildland firefighters risk their lives every day to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth.  By providing an enhanced retirement program for wildland firefighters, the state is recognizing their efforts in a significant way."

State Forester Carl Garrison said, "I'm extremely proud of the work that has been done by the VDOF employees.  They've worked long and hard to see this effort through.  And we very much appreciate Senators Watkins, Hanger and Norment for sponsoring this important piece of legislation."

While much remains to be done for this bill to become law, if not for the dedication of a small group of Agency employees this important benefit would not be anything more than a dream.

Forest Service Seeks Public Comment and Input

Southern forests are affected by forces such as fire, storms, invasive species, urban and suburban development, forest management, and climate. Assessing the long-range impact of these factors is an ongoing process; the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with the Southern Group of State Foresters, is beginning a two-year project to forecast the future of forests.

The project, called the Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP), will be led by the Southern Research Station and Southern Region of the Forest Service in partnership with the Southern Group of State Foresters. The SFFP will seek cooperation with other government agencies and the interested public in conducting this analysis.

Public involvement is vital to the value of the SFFP. Public workshops held throughout the South will provide scientists and researchers with input on (1) the forces of change likely to influence forest conditions, and (2) values at risk from these changes. This input will be used to devise the final SFFP.

These workshops, which began in January and continue to the end of March, are held throughout the South. In Virginia, a meeting will be held in Blacksburg on February 26. Visit the SFFP website at http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/futures/input/ for details.