Federal wildland firefighters have been cut by 19 percent over two years

panelEarlier today we mentioned the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s June 4 hearing about wildland fire in which Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and others testified. In the written testimony that he submitted Chief Tidwell said:

For the 2013 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are reduced to those available in 2012. Nonetheless, we will have close to 13,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior…

On June 14, 2011 Chief Tidwell testified before the same committee, saying:

For the 2011 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are comparable to those available in 2010, more than 16,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior…

That amounts to a 19 percent reduction in the number of federal wildland firefighters. With the fire season being extended by 50 days due to climate change, reducing the capacity to fight fires is perhaps is not the best strategy.

Another interesting fact mentioned by Kim Thorsen of the Department of Interior in the hearing is that the Department will double the number of Single Engine Air Tankers this year, bringing the total up to 27.

At the one hour and 23 minute mark, Chief Tidwell makes his case for acquiring some C-27J aircraft to be retrofitted as air tankers if the Air Force decides to get rid of them.

Below are some more excerpts from the written testimony:

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Chief Tidwell:

The agency has the capability to protect life, property, and natural resources while assuring an appropriate, risk-informed, and effective response to wildfires that is consistent with land and resource management objectives.

With greater mobility and with agreement to focus assets on high risk areas, it is likely that high levels of initial attack success will continue. For the 2013 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are reduced to those available in 2012. Nonetheless, we will have close to 13,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior with approximately 70% coming from the Forest Service. The reduction resulted in fewer firefighters and engines, but the level of highly-trained smokejumpers, Type 1 national interagency incident management teams (the most experienced and skilled teams) available for complex fires or incidents, and Type 2 incident management teams available for geographical or national incidents, are comparable to those available in 2012.

[...]

Key components of the Forest Service 2013 aviation resources include:

  • 420 helicopters;
  • Up to 26 large air tankers under contract or agreement;
  • 15 leased Aerial Supervision fixed-wing aircraft;
  • Up to 12 Smokejumper aircraft;
  • 2 heat detecting infrared aircraft;
  • 3 water scoopers including 1 CL-415

[Note from Bill: he did not specify the number of Type 1 helicopters]

[In the same hearing, Kim Thorsen, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services, Department of the Interior said in her written testimony:]

….Overall, the sequestration resulted in a $37.5 million cut to Interior’s fire program and resulted in a reduction of approximately 7 percent of FTE the Department’s firefighter seasonal workforce, with reduced lengths of employment for those hired.

We have had to make difficult choices that will reduce our overall capacity such as not filling permanent staff vacancies, reducing seasonal firefighter employment periods, and reducing the number of hazardous fuels crews. In addition, other reductions in seasonal hiring across Interior will have a residual impact on the overall numbers of firefighters available for dispatch, since many of these hires, while being non-fire positions, are “red-carded” or trained to fight fire when needed.

Among its bureaus, the Department will deploy just over 3,400 firefighters, including 135 smokejumpers, 17 Type-1 crews; 750 engines; more than 200 other pieces of heavy equipment (dozers, tenders, etc.); and about 1,300 support personnel (incident management teams, dispatchers, fire cache, etc.); totaling nearly 5,000 personnel.

In aviation, this year, Interior has 27 single-engine airtankers or SEATS on exclusive use contracts –double the number we have had in the past, and an additional 42 on call-when-needed contracts. The Department made a conscious decision to double the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts in order to be prepared for the 2013 season and to reduce the overall costs to the program. SEATs are a good fit for the types of firesthat the Interior agencies experience, which usually burn at lower elevations, in sparser fuels, on flatter terrain.

(end of written testimony)

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The complete video of the June 4, 2013 hearing which lasted almost two hours can be found at the committee’s web site. A tip: it started late about 24 minutes into the video.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+