Forest Service cuts air tankers by one-third

The agency also intends to abandon the project to convert Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers

Fire Aviation broke two major stories today. Below are excerpts:

The U.S. Forest Service is cutting the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year from 20 to 13.

air tankers number each year wildfire

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues are affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner. Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased. This means less funds available for our crucial restorative work on your National Forest System lands to prevent large fires.

Type 1 large helicopters on exclusive use contracts have already been cut from 34 to 28.

The second story is that the U.S. Forest Service intends to abandon the program that it has been working on since 2013 to convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers for fighting wildfires.

This is the last year the agency will support the HC-130H program. After four years none of the seven aircraft have completed the entire maintenance and conversion process.

HC-130H 1709 Jeanie Menze
One of the Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, #1709, being transferred to the USFS; shown with Jeanine Menze several years ago–1st USCG African American female aviator. She earned her wings June 24, 2005.

Structure burns near Hominy, Oklahoma, starts vegetation fire

Kemohah Fire Oklahoma
Kemohah Fire. Photo by Jerry Messinger.

Jerry Messinger sent us this photo he took of the Kemohah Fire that started in a structure near Hominy, OK. Firefighters knocked it down after it burned 166 acres. Other structures, he said, were saved. Firefighters were challenged by strong winds and 80-degree temperatures.

Thanks Jerry!

CAL FIRE to procure mobile data systems with location tracking capability

The system will enhance situational awareness for 1,200 firefighting resources.

Above: an example of a mobile data terminal made by Radio Mobile.

(Originally published at 10:50 a.m. MT February 15, 2018)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has signed a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles that will facilitate mission critical data communications over a variety of networks (broadband, narrowband and satellite).

Under the agreement, RadioMobile will provide a centralized location tracking application within a mobile data terminal solution. The system receives incident information, provides mapping, and enables vehicle operators to communicate via a touchscreen application interfacing with their computer aided dispatching (CAD) system. The company will also provide the equipment, services, and support needed to implement a statewide VHF mobile data system and integrate network switching between broadband/cellular, VHF and satellite for CAL FIRE mobile resources.

We have been an advocate for the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire. This system will implement a portion of that, tracking the location of firefighting vehicles and other mobile equipment (but probably can’t track dismounted personnel). It will also have the capability of displaying a map, and when data is available it could show the location of the fire. For example, it could show a sketched-out hand drawn map of the fire, or live video from an air attack ship or drone orbiting 10,000 feet over the fire. And, importantly, it could indicate the location of all firefighting resources that have location tracking enabled.

When these functions are implemented, it will enhance the situational awareness of firefighters. Congratulations to CAL FIRE for taking a step to make their personnel just a little bit safer.

Radio Mobile
This is a screen shot from a Radio Mobile “about us” video. Notice anything interesting?

How to prevent your house from burning during a wildfire

We can benefit from Dr. Jack Cohen’s research

Above: Screenshot from the NFPA video below.

In light of the article posted earlier today reporting on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order for the Department of the Interior to be more aggressive about conducting fuel treatment activities to better protect facilities from burning in a wildfire, this video is very appropriate.

Nobody knows more than Dr. Jack Cohen about why and how structures burn. He also knows what homeowners can do to make their homes fire resistant.

Before recently retiring, Dr. Cohen was a Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.

Secretary of Interior orders more aggressive fuel management

The directive introduces a political element to wildland fire management

Jasper Fire
The Jasper Fire approaches the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Monument, August 25, 2000. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

In a message to Directors and Managers in the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered “more aggressive practices” to “prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques”. The directive, dated September 12, 2017, attracted attention today when Mr. Zinke referred to it in a press release about the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019.

“In September, I directed all land managers to adopt aggressive practices to prevent the spread of
catastrophic wildfires,” said Mr. Zinke in the February 12 release. “The President’s budget request for the Wildland Fire Management program provides the resources needed for fuels management and efforts that will help protect firefighters, the public and local communities.”

The September 12 directive mentions implementing FireWise principles around government facilities:

The Department has lost historic structures in wildfires like Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet lodge. In an effort to help prevent future losses, the Secretary is also directing increased protection of Interior assets that are in wildfire prone areas, following the Firewise guidance, writing: “If we ask local communities to ‘be safer from the start’ and meet Firewise standards, we should be the leaders of and the model for ‘Firewise-friendly’ standards in our planning, development, and maintenance of visitor-service and administrative facilities.”

It is a wise move to encourage better fuel management and FireWise techniques around public structures in fire-prone areas. I have seen too many U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service facilities with nearby hazardous fuels that make them extremely vulnerable to a wildfire. An example is the photo above showing dense tree canopy very close to the visitor center at Jewel Cave National Memorial as the Jasper Fire approached in 2000. A few years after that a professional tree service was brought in to thin out the large pines within 100 feet of the headquarters building at Mount Rushmore as a large wildfire burned nearby. Firefighters took the same action at Devils Tower National Memorial when a fire was bearing down on the visitors center. Waiting until a fire is an imminent threat is not the best policy.

When the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire burned into Jewel Cave National Monument in 2000 the shake shingle roof on an isolated historic structure surrounded by ponderosa pines had just been replaced with a new roof. A reasonable person would have chosen materials that look like shakes, but are fire resistant. The new wooden shake shingles had to foamed by engine crews before they withdrew on three occasions when the fire lofted burning embers at the site and made runs at the structure.

While Mr. Zinke makes some good points about more aggressive fuel management on public lands, he attempts to reinforce his directive by introducing a political element. I don’t read every directive issued by the Secretary of the Interior, but politicizing wildland fire management is not productive.

In the third paragraph Mr. Zinke is quoted taking an unnecessary swipe at the land managers that preceded him, saying:

This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat.

It is an unusual but welcome tactic for the current administration to invoke science in a discussion.

The directive goes on to include quotes attributed to five senators and representatives, all Republicans, and all supposedly saying that Mr. Zinke is right. No Democrats were quoted.

One of the most egregious examples is from Rob Bishop, (R-Utah):

I’m heartened to finally have an Administration that’s focused on actively managing and addressing the on-the-ground conditions that are contributing to our historic wildfire crisis.

Mr. Bishop goes on to advocate more logging.

Politicizing wildland fire management and going out of your way to create barriers that make it more difficult to get anything done, is not the best course of action to preserve and protect our natural resources and public facilities. It brings to mind one of Mr. Zinke’s predecessors, James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983.

Last week’s federal budget deal did not address wildland fire

The President’s recommended FY 19 budget reportedly includes a fix to funding wildfire suppression

dollar signLast week when the federal budget deal was being hurriedly thrown together as the government shutdown approached, there was an effort to include a provision to fix the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression. The legislation the President signed increased the debt limit and appropriated an additional $165 billion for the Department of Defense, but there was nothing earthshaking in the bill specifically related to wildland fire. However it included more money for most federal agencies, including the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Some of those funds may find their way into fire budgets in the next few months.

Today President Trump is releasing his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins in October. One of our sources said it includes the fire funding fix. But expecting Congress to pass a traditional year-long budget has become a quaint idea.