The men and women putting their lives in danger to battle forest fires from California to Florida are getting older, leaving fewer firefighters to handle the workload, according to the General Accounting Office.

The GAO said in a report that because of an aging work force there will be a shortage of qualified firefighters in the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The situation could have a direct impact on firefighters' safety, the report said.

"It's one of those things that won't be a critical issue this year, next year or even in five years," said Lisa Harmon, GAO assistant director. "But there is enough potential for a serious problem that [the firefighters] need to look at their work force."

Forest Service and BLM firefighters are eligible to retire at age 50 and are required to retire at age 55. The average age of superintendents of specially trained firefighters, or "hot-shot" crews, is 43.

The report, released Friday, recommended that Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt work to quickly develop a strategy to rebuild the force.

Harmon said it takes 17 to 22 years' experience to become eligible for firefighting leadership positions.

CAPTION: A GAO report says that the aging of the work force threatens to create a shortage of qualified federal firefighters.