Forest Service Chief vows to protect communities “no matter what the budget”

Tom Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 6, 2016.

Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, discussed the 2016 wildfire season in two venues recently. Earlier this month he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and on Wednesday he talked with the Associated Press while he was in Denver for a conference about forest health.

In Denver Chief Tidwell discussed the outlook for the wildfire season, funding for fire suppression, and Smokey Bear.

Here are some excerpts from the AP article, and below that we have information about the committee testimony.

The upcoming wildfire season across the U.S. isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s infernos, when a record 15,800 square miles burned, the nation’s top wildland firefighting official said Wednesday.

But parts of the nation should expect a rough season after a warm, dry winter or because of long-term drought, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Southern California, other parts of the Southwest, Alaska and Montana are all vulnerable, he said.

“So where we anticipate the severity of the fire season will not be at the same level as last year, we still expect to have some areas that will be really active,” Tidwell said.

[…]

The overall bill for wildfires, including prevention programs and the cost of putting crews, equipment and aircraft on fire lines, is consuming a growing share of the Forest Service budget. That has forced cuts in forestry research, campground and trail maintenance and other areas, Tidwell said.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pay the cost of fighting the worst fires from natural disaster funds, rather than the Forest Service budget. Tidwell said the largest 1 or 2 percent of wildfires account for about 30 percent of the costs.

Congress has not agreed to the change, but it did approve an additional $520 million for fighting fires this season, Tidwell said.

[…]

With a chuckle and a smile, Tidwell defended Smokey Bear, his agency’s memorable mascot, from allegations of making things worse by portraying fire as evil instead of part of the natural cycle that kept forests healthy. Smokey’s original message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

“Really, Smokey was just talking about those human-caused fires which actually occur at the wrong time of the year, not where the natural fire occurs,” Tidwell said. Those are the fires that the Forest Service still wants to stop, he said.

“Smokey Bear gets no blame for the situation we have today,” he said.

On April 6 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief Tidwell discussed many different USFS responsibilities. In his introductory remarks, he summarized wildland fire at 38:50 in the video. (I could not get the video to play using the Chrome browser, but it worked with Firefox. This probably has something to do with the government using Flash to serve the video, a much-hated and insecure platform.) 

The budget request also will provide for the level of fire suppression resources that are needed to be able to protect not only the national forests but to provide the support for the states and our local firefighters. We’ll have the adequate number of large air tankers this year, we’ll have the helicopters, the hot shot crews that we need to be able to continue to provide that support when we work in conjunction with our states and local fires.

Later in the hearing, at 1:07:01 in the video, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall brought up the issue of fire borrowing, scavenging money from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression when the fire funds are depleted during a busy fire season. The Senator mentioned the Chief’s boss, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Secretary apparently had said that funds would not be taken from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression.

Senator Udall:

Secretary Vilsack has been very public in his disappointment about failing to pass the disaster cap adjustment. He has stated for the record that he will not authorize transfers for fire suppression. He said that most recently at the Agriculture appropriations hearing last month. That essentially bars the normal practice of fire borrowing as you know. As I said in my opening statement I share the Secretary’s frustration that we don’t have a cap adjustment in law yet and I hope this is the year that we will be able to enact a fix for the firefighting budget. But until that happens, we must be clear. We expect the Forest Service to use all of its existing legal authority to fight catastrophic wildfires. Chief Tidwell can you assure us that when the time comes the agency will use all available tools to protect the public and the nation’s resources from wildfires.

Chief Tidwell replied:

Senator we will continue to carry out our responsibilities on the ground to be able to protect the communities no matter what the budget. I share the Secretary’s urgency and as I shared with the Chair earlier, the longer this issue goes on the less and less discretion you have to be able to solve it… We will continue to work with the committee, and I am optimistic that so far with the projections that we should be OK with the level of additional funding you have provided. But as the season progresses we definitely will have ongoing discussions about informing the Committee about where we are with the rate of expenditures so that hopefully we can avoid that situation of running out of money for fire suppression this year.

The statement about protecting communities “no matter what the budget” reminded me of an article we posted on April 25, when Jerry Williams, the former Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, in 1995 talked about can-do, make-do, and tragedy.

After the discussion of fire-borrowing, at 1:09:05 in the video Senator Udall asked about the plans for utilizing the seven HC-130H aircraft that in 2013 began the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. They will become the first government-owned/contractor-operated air tankers in the United States federal government. All of them are receiving programmed depot maintenance and will need to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to new paint. Most of them will also have the wing boxes replaced, a process that takes about 10 months and around $7 million per aircraft.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015. In 2016 it will be replaced by another HC-130H that may have the new USFS-approved paint scheme.

In the meantime, this year, like last year, there will be one HC-130H available for firefighting based at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. It will use a borrowed slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) since the Air Force, responsible for maintaining and retrofitting the seven aircraft, has not yet arranged to install the permanent retardant tanks.

Chief Tidwell told the Committee he expects the seven HC-130H air tankers to be operational on the following schedule:

2016: one
2017: two
2018: four
2019: seven, all with permanent retardant delivery systems

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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