Senator John Kyl: Forest Service or Fire Service?

Senator John Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, in an article on his web site criticizes the President’s proposed budget for 2009 which reduces the funds allocated for fuel treatments.

“With almost 48 percent of the proposed budget going toward fire fighting, the Forest Service might be more appropriately called the “Fire Service.”

I believe funding for fighting fires must be complemented by adequate funding for preventing them. Proactive management of our forests not only is the best tool in combating wildfires, it is critical to restoring forest health and improving habitats for diverse species.

Typically, there are two complimentary methods of treatment: mechanical thinning of brush and smaller diameter trees, and prescribed burning. These treatments open up forests so they are less susceptible to “hot” crown fires. More importantly, reducing competition for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight immediately enhances the health of the trees, allowing them to grow bigger and fend off diseases and deadly insects like bark beetles.”

Fires in Virginia, North and South Carolina

Lake Carolina fire
Lake Carolina in Richland County, VA, from wistv.com

Strong winds up to 50 and 60 mph caused problems for firefighters in Virginia and North Carolina.

Virginia, from Pilotonline.com:

Beyond southeast Virginia, dozens of brush fires burned across the commonwealth and some were still burning Sunday night.

Local authorities declared emergencies in Bedford, Roanoke, Caroline, Orange, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, Nelson and King George counties.

Shelters were opened in Roanoke and in the counties of Bedford, Hanover and Nelson for evacuees from residential areas threatened by brush fires.

Brush fires and downed power lines have closed parts of several major roads: I-81 north of Roanoke; U.S. 460 in Botetourt County; I-95 in Hanover County; U.S. 60 in New Kent County.

Carolinas, from Foxnews/Associated Press:

CONWAY, S.C. — Wind-whipped wildfires chased churchgoers from worship, forced hundreds of residents to flee homes and closed highways across the rain-starved Carolinas and Virginia on Sunday.

Twelve small structures, including at least one business and an unknown number of homes and sheds, were damaged by a blaze near the South Carolina coast; no injuries were reported, authorities said.

About 60 homes were briefly evacuated Sunday afternoon as the fire sent smoke billowing above this city of about 11,000 people about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.

“The flames were at the top of the trees and I could feel the heat,” said Lewis Cooper, 37, who fled the fire.

In North Carolina, winds gusting up to 60 mph in some areas toppled trees and power lines and also fanned brush fires.


Professional Liability Insurance Now Available for AD Employees

One of the companies that provides professional liability insurance for wildland firefighters has now expanded their coverage to include AD (Administratively Determined) employees. This is big news for the AD firefighters out there. The cost is $270 a year, the same as for a regular government firefighter.

Here is some information from a news release by the company, Federal Employee Defense Services.

“Federal Employee Defense Services (FEDS) has recently determined that personnel hired under the Pay Plan for Emergency Workers (AD Pay Plan) are considered “federal employees” for purposes of eligibility for benefits and membership in the FEDS program.

Through our relationships with such organizations as the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA), AD Firefighters Association, Wildlandfire.com and other groups and individuals involved with federal wildland fire fighting, we learned about a group of individuals called ADs who were hired by federal agencies to support the federal government’s wildland fire fighting mission. We received many inquiries as to whether these individuals would be eligible for liability protection under the FEDs program.

We have determined that individuals who are hired under the Pay Plan for Emergency Workers (AD Pay Plan) are eligible for membership under FEDS. Eligibility for benefits under FEDS, however, is limited to those instances when you are performing a federal function under the direction and control of a federal agency (i.e. within the scope of federal employment and are an employee under 5 U.S.C. 2105(a)). Accordingly, we at FEDS are happy to continue our support of the federal wildland fire fighting community by extending our coverage to ADs in this regard. When signing up on line at www.fedsprotection.com simply select AD Pay Plan when asked to identify the federal agency for which you work.”

Western Governors Call for Adequate Funding for Fire

The Western Governors’ Association sent out a news release calling for adequate federal funding for both wildland fire suppression and prevention.

“Denver — On the heels of one of the most costly wildfire seasons on record, Western governors are calling on Congress and the Bush Administration to provide adequate resources in the upcoming budget and beyond to not only fight future fires, but also improve forest health to prevent them.

The Western Governors’ Association is calling for a “funding fix” to ensure fire suppression costs can be covered without taking money away from restoration and fuels reduction – the very programs that help prevent catastrophic wildfires. A letter outlining the governors’ concerns was sent to leaders in Congress and the Administration. It was signed by Govs. Dave Freudenthal ( Wyo.), WGA Chairman; Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. ( Utah), WGA Vice Chairman; and Janet Napolitano ( Ariz.), WGA lead governor for forest health.

“It is clear that we have entered a new age of wildland fires,” the governors said, noting that three of the last six fire seasons have resulted in more than $1 billion in suppression costs. At the same time, funding for the other functions has decreased by over $200 million.

They said to solve the impact of suppression costs on agencies’ budgets, “we must take a reality check” and realize that additional investment is a necessary part of the solution. The governors support full implementation and funding of the National Fire Plan and the 10-year Comprehensive Strategy and Implementation Plan that states, federal agencies and stakeholders developed in 2001 and updated in 2006.”

Photo of P-3 Orion dropping on fire in Utah

P-3 Orion drops on a fire in Utah
Photo by the helitack crew at Zion National Park

I ran across this fantastic photo of air tanker 00, a P-3 Orion, dropping on a fire near Cedar City, Utah, in 2006. It is from a new blog about the helitack crew at Zion National Park. Click on the photo to see a larger version. (I took the liberty of cropping it.)

Investigators report on the Florida I-4 fog/smoke incident

fog-smokeInvestigators have released a report on the Florida January 8 incident that we reported on in which smoke from an escaped prescribed fire may have mixed with fog causing poor visibility on Interstate 4 resulting in five fatalities in vehicle crashes. The report issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says:

“…an unpredictable change in weather caused the prescribed burn to burn erratically which resulted in spot fires.”

Tampa Bay Online has more details:

“TALLAHASSEE – A state investigation has cleared wildlife officials who last month lost control of a prescribed burn that may have contributed to a 70-vehicle pileup on Interstate 4 in Polk County.

The investigation by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services concluded changing weather conditions Jan. 8 caused the 10-acre planned burn to jump firelines and spread to 400 acres. The National Weather Service said smoke from the fire could have combined with fog the next morning to cut visibility on the highway to nearly zero.

Five people died in the predawn pileup and resulting fires, prompting questions about how the fire got out of control and whether the state should have held a controlled burn in the dry season less than a mile from the interstate.

The Florida Highway Patrol is conducting a homicide investigation that also will look at whether smoke from the wildfire played a part in the wrecks.

The report by the Agriculture Department’s law enforcement division states those in charge of the fire followed correct procedures but that an “unpredictable change in weather caused the prescribed burn to burn erratically which resulted in spot fires.”

“There does not appear to be any evidence of criminal violations or gross negligence” by those involved in the burn, investigators concluded in their report.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employees conducting the burn reported that the humidity had dropped sharply about an hour after the fire was set at 10 a.m. and winds picked up, spreading the fire outside the protective earthen barriers.

The National Weather Service confirms there was a drop in humidity at the fire site, but meteorologists said that could have been caused by the fire. As warm air from a fire rises, it forces drier air downward. Drier air aids the spread of fire, especially when rainfall has been sparse for a long period.

Daniel Noah, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the agency has no way of knowing whether wind speeds around the fire picked up or wind directions changed. However, Noah did not rule out that possibility.”

A preliminary report issued by the Florida Highway Patrol does not even mention the prescribed fire.