Visualizing increasing costs of wildfires

Comprehensive fire funding fix could be passed this week

The new system is included in the proposed omnibus legislation

Above: Thomas Fire, Ventura, California, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 8:09 a.m. MDT March 22, 2018)

After years of dithering, Congress appears to be on track to finally significantly change the way wildfires are funded, no longer robbing dollars from fire prevention or totally unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. One insider in Washington calls it the long-anticipated “comprehensive funding fix”.

The changes are part of the omnibus legislation that likely will be voted on on Friday. The bill also funds most of the government, which will have to shut down Saturday if it does not pass. Of course anything could happen between now and then, but this is the closest we have been to a meaningful solution.

If passed it would begin in fiscal year 2020 and run through 2027, improving the two aspects of fire funding that have created major problems:

  1. In years when fire suppression costs are very high, it would use a budget cap adjustment to fund a new account which will receive an extra $2.3 to $3.0 billion a year. The amount will increase by $100 million each year. This should reduce the need to rob money from unrelated accounts in bad fire seasons. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are depleted.
  2. It will freeze the 10-year average computation of fire suppression costs at the 2015 level, $1.4 billion. This is even more important than the first change. Congress directs the Forest Service to fund the fire organization at the 10-year average of costs. That would be fine, except that the total budget for the FS remains the same year after year, while fire costs keep increasing. So even before the fire season starts, the agency has to take money from other accounts to give to fire management. And, this money is not later paid back, unlike the funds that are taken later in the year to pay for a bad fire season.

These TWO changes are why the insider calls this a “comprehensive funding fix”. Simply creating a new, unconnected account for emergency fire suppression would be only part of a solution.

But if the total budget for the Forest Service continues to be locked in at the same amount year after year, funding the fire organization at the 2015 10-year average is still going to be very difficult. The third part of the fire funding fix would be to stop cutting, in real dollars, the amount appropriated to the Forest Service.

Other provisions in the omnibus bill would increase the budget for the National Park Service by 8 percent and include $154 million to apply toward the $11.6 billion infrastructure repair backlog.

The legislation also reduces environmental analysis procedures on projects that treat hazardous fuels.

The press releases are flying as politicians praise, and in some cases, take partial credit for the changes in fire funding. The two Colorado Senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, are in favor of the changes:

“The pressures that wildfires have brought to the West, as well as the challenges of climate change and development, the antiquated way we pay for firefighting needed dramatic change,” Sen. Bennet (D) said in a news release. “This bipartisan fix transforms and modernizes the Forest Service’s capacity to restore forest health and mitigate and fight wildfires.”

Sen. Gardner (R) also said the funding bill will go a long way to help federal agencies tasked with fighting fires.

“Year after year, much of the West is forced to deal with horrible wildfires that burn millions of acres, and funding that should be applied to fire prevention and mitigation projects is instead spent by the Forest Service fighting these fires. Our provision will ensure the Forest Service has the necessary funding for cleanup and prevention efforts that will help reduce the amount of catastrophic wildfires the Forest Service has to fight,” Gardner said.

The Senators in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho issued similar statements.

You can’t fight fires on the cheap

The federal government is reducing the numbers of large air tankers and helicopters on exclusive use contracts. Air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13, and Type 1 helicopters over the last year have been reduced from 34 to 28. Cutting back on these firefighting resources is not going to enhance our ability to suppress new fires before they become large, dangerous, and expensive.

For next fiscal year President proposes budget stability for firefighters, cuts for fire aviation

The number of firefighters would remain at 10,000, with cuts to air tankers and helicopters

CL-215 and CL-415
A CL-215 and CL-415 scoop water from Snowbank Lake in 2011 while working on the Pagami Creek fire in Minnesota in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. Photo by Kristi Marshall for the Superior National Forest

The budget recommended by President Trump for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2019 beginning in October includes stable numbers for wildland firefighters and cuts in fire aviation.

The FY19 firefighter numbers would be the same as in the two previous years, FY17 and FY18:

  • 900 Engines
  • 210 Dozers, Tractor Plows, and Water Tenders
  • 67 Hot Shot Crews (1,340 firefighters)
  • 7,940 other Firefighters
  • 320 Smoke Jumpers
  • 400 Fire Prevention Technicians

The firefighters above total 10,000, the same as in the last several years.

The only FY19 cuts recommended by the President to firefighting resources are in aviation:

  • 28 Type 1 large Helicopters, down from 34 in FY17, and the same as in FY18.
  • “Up to 18” Large Air Tankers, down from 20 in FY17 and up from 13 in FY18.
  • No HC-130H Coast Guard/USFS converted air tankers, down from one. The President intends to abandon this program.
  • No Water Scooping Air Tankers. There were two in FY17 and none in FY18.

These cuts are in spite of the fact that the number of acres burned annually in the United States continues to increase.

total acres burned wildfires United States 1990-2017

fire budget FY19 resources summary
Click to enlarge.

This recommended budget for the Forest Service is only a suggestion by the President. Congress is not obligated to respect his wishes and could do anything from passing a series of continuing resolutions locking in  budget numbers from the previous year, to passing something completely different. Or, doing nothing and shutting down the government again.

The table above shows numbers of resources. Below are dollars.

fire budget FY19 dollars
Click to enlarge.

More information about the reduction in firefighting aircraft.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.

President’s proposed FY18 wildland fire budget includes some reductions

Most wildland fire functions in Fiscal Year 2018 would remain flat or reduced a small amount if the President’s proposed budget is enacted by Congress.

Above: The President’s proposal for funding wildland fire in the U.S. Forest Service in Fiscal Year 2018. Source: USFS.

(Originally published at 5:40 p.m. MST November 9, 2017)

While the federal government keeps throwing additional billions of dollars at the Department of Defense to fund our adventures in countries on the other side of the world, the budget for the war against wildfire in our homeland would be cut in some areas while most functions would remain flat if the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 is approved by Congress.

In May the President proposed budgets for the Forest Service and the four primary land management agencies in the Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  However, Congress, as usual, has not finalized appropriations bills for these agencies for Fiscal Year 2018 which started October 1, 2017. The House passed a version in September, but the Senate has yet to take meaningful action.

The agencies have been operating on a continuing resolution (CR) which expires December 8. It is likely that some kind of showdown will happen around that date, with the worst case scenario being a government shutdown. Or, they could keep passing successive CRs for the rest of the fiscal year, which would lock the funding into the FY 2017 numbers. Of course, CRs were in effect for all of FY 2017. Apparently our elected Senators and Representatives think they have better things to do than fund the government.

If Congress actually does pass a funding bill for these land management agencies, the line by line details and numbers will most likely be different from the President’s proposals, but below we spell out what the administration would like to see happen this fiscal year that started October 1.

Forest Service

In the FS as a whole, the President would like to reduce the number of employees (jobs), cutting the number of staff-years by 5.7 percent. Wildland fire personnel in the FS would remain the same — a total of 10,000, including 67 Interagency Hotshot Crews, 7,940 other firefighters, 320 Smokejumpers, and 400 Fire Prevention Technicians. Fire Suppression would be funded at the 10-year average.

The exact numbers and trends are difficult to track because the Base 8 (the first 8 hours of a firefighter’s regular work day) will now be paid out of Preparedness rather than Suppression. And funds for Hazardous Fuels are shifting from fire funding to National Forest System accounts.

In 2017 the FS reduced the number of the largest helicopters, Type 1, from 34 to 28. The President aims to retain that smaller number. Type 2 and 3 helicopters would remain the same at 33 and 46, respectively. The two water-scooping air tankers in the FS would be eliminated completely, while they add one Single Engine Air Tanker, up from zero in 2017. The FS looked at the two years they had the scoopers as an experiment, even though they have been used successfully in Canada, France, Greece, and Spain for decades.

In 2002 the FS had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. In 2017 they had 20, consisting of 16 Next Generation air tankers and 4 Legacy P2V’s. With the 50+ year old P2V’s now retired, the agency expects to have “up to 20” Next Gen air tankers in FY 2018.

The budget proposal includes funding for only one of the seven HC-130H aircraft obtained from the Coast Guard in December, 2013 that are supposedly being converted into air tankers. The one that has been used for a couple of years is still not completely transformed, and is using a borrowed pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System for dispensing retardant rather than employing a conventional permanent (but removable) internal gravity-powered tank.

The budget document has a rather cryptic sentence about air tankers:

Beginning in 2018, the Forest Service will transition to a full cost recovery business model for aviation utilized by cooperating agencies.

We asked a few Washington Office folks what that meant, and they either didn’t know or failed to respond to our inquiry. One person told us that unclear writing in the document could be the result of a changing of the guards and the reviewers not fully being in place at the Departments and the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency has always charged cooperating agencies for the use of FS aircraft, but it sounds like the price will increase. They may tack on in addition to the hourly rate, additional charges such as working capital fund fees that go toward purchasing replacement aircraft at the end of its life cycle.

The President wants to eliminate the agency’s $6,901,000 contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program  (JFSP) which receives its funding through the FS and the Department of the Interior (DOI). According to the budget proposal document:

The JFSP would focus on completing existing projects and standing down science exchange with managers. New research in the Smoke Management and in the Fuels Treatment lines-of-work would be eliminated, as would new research in the Emerging Management Needs initiative. General fire research in the agency would be conducted through the National Fire Plan and the Forest and Rangeland Research appropriations.

The Department of the Interior intends to cut their JFSP contribution in half, down to $3,000.

The web site for the JFSP describes their work as  “funding scientific research on wildland fires and distributing results to help policymakers, fire managers and practitioners make sound decisions”.

The total budget for all research in the FS would be cut by 16 percent, from $329 million to $276 million.

Department of the Interior

The 2018 budget request for DOI’s discretionary Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $873.5 million. This is a decrease of $118.3 million, or 12 percent, from FY 2017. It would mean a reduction in Full Time Equivalent employees (FTE) from 3,586 to 3,401, or 5 percent.

The number of “fire personnel” would be cut by 140 personnel (jobs) from 4,221 to 4,081, or 3 percent. Smokejumpers would be reduced from 145 to 140, or 3 percent, and engines from 610 to 605, or 1 percent.

The numbers of all DOI firefighting aircraft would remain the same, except single engine air tankers would be cut from 34 to 32, or 6 percent.

Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018
The President’s proposal for Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018. Source: DOI.

As stated above, the DOI’s contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program would be cut in half, to $3 million, while the FS will eliminate their share of funding the program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.