Sen. Murkowski threatens retaliatory budget cut for the DOI

muskoxen
Muskoxen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo.

In retaliation for the Obama administration’s proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has threatened to cut the budget of the Department of the Interior. The wilderness designation would prevent any chance of oil exploration in the area, which would infuriate many Republican politicians.

Four agencies in the DOI  employ large numbers of wildland firefighters — the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. If Senator Murkowski is able to impose a large cut in the DOI budget, perhaps hundreds or thousands of employees could lose their jobs, with some of them being firefighters.

But the Senator says “jobs are transitory”.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Alaska Public Media:

…But as chair of the Energy Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has some level of oversight over the Department of the Interior. Murkowski says Secretary Sally Jewell will appear before her twice in the coming weeks.

“She will be before my energy committee on the Tuesday next, as she presents the budget,” Murkowski said. “And then I will have her in front of my Interior appropriations subcommittee on March 4, so I’m going to have plenty of opportunity to engage with her.”

Murkowski notes she is in a position to affect the Department of Interior’s budget.

“If budgets are reduced and people lose their jobs, that is an outcome. Right now, what people in this region seem to be concerned about is losing their land. A job is transitory,” Murkowski said. “This Secretary is going to have this job for just two more years, this President is going to have this job for less than two years, but the land – the land – that’s what I’m here to protect. This is what we need to be fighting for. I’m not going to be fighting for some short-term job for a bureaucrat.”

In response, Jewell says she is “hopeful” that there will not be retaliatory cuts, and notes the Department provides aerial mapping of Alaska and monitors earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the state.

Bill approved by House includes funding for wildland fire

Dollar Sign(Originally published December 12, 2014; updated December 13, 2014)

On December 11 the House of Representatives passed a consolidated federal appropriations bill that if also passed by the Senate and signed by the President in its present form would fund most of the government for the remainder of this fiscal year that ends September 30, 2015.

The bill provides $3.53 billion for Interior Department and Forest Service wildland fire management activities, which is $223 million above the FY 2014 funding amount, meeting the 10‐year average.

It includes $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. We have a call in to the Forest Service to find out what this is for exactly. It appears to be over and above what is normally appropriated for the contracting of air tankers, and may have something to do with management and retrofitting of the C-130Hs the agency is in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard. But those aircraft are not expected to be received until FY 2018. We would be surprised if the USFS plans to purchase additional air tankers. If our call to the USFS is returned, we will post an update here.

(UPDATE at 9:12 a.m. MST, December 13, 2014: Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson with the USFS, told us that their budget staff will not disclose how that $65 million will be spent until after Congress and the President pass and sign the bill.)

(UPDATE December 16, 2014: An article at Fire Aviation explores in much more detail how the Forest Service may spend the $65 million allocated for air tankers.)

Below are excerpts from the bill; the full text of which can be accessed here.

Forest Service
Page 745
WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT
For necessary expenses for forest fire presuppression
activities on National Forest System lands, for emergency
fire suppression on or adjacent to such lands or other
lands under fire protection agreement, hazardous fuels
management on or adjacent to such lands, emergency re-
habilitation of burned-over National Forest System lands
and water, and for State and volunteer fire assistance,
$2,333,298,000, to remain available until expended: …
[…]
Page 746
…Provided further, That of the
funds provided, $361,749,000 is for hazardous fuels man-
agement activities, $19,795,000 is for research activities
and to make competitive research grants pursuant to the
Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research
Act, (16 U.S.C. 1641 et seq.), $78,000,000 is for State
fire assistance, and $13,000,000 is for volunteer fire as-
sistance under section 10 of the Cooperative Forestry As-
sistance Act of 1978 (16 U.S.C. 2106): …
Page 747
…Provided further, That, of the funds provided, $65,000,000
shall be available for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for
the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting
mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such air-
craft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the
terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National
forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the
Forest Service:
Page 749
FLAME WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION RESERVE FUND
(INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of Agriculture and as a reserve
fund for suppression and Federal emergency response
activities, $303,060,000, to remain available until expended:
Provided, That such amounts are only available for trans-
fer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account following
a declaration by the Secretary in accordance with section
502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C. 1748a)…

Department of the Interior
Page 706-707
DEPARTMENT-WIDE PROGRAMS
WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT
(INCLUDING TRANSFERS OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for fire preparedness, fire
suppression operations, fire science and research, emer-
gency rehabilitation, hazardous fuels management activi-
ties, and rural fire assistance by the Department of the
Interior, $804,779,000, to remain available until
expended, of which not to exceed $6,127,000 shall be for
the renovation or construction of fire facilities: Provided,
That such funds are also available for repayment of
advances to other appropriation accounts from which funds
were previously transferred for such purposes: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $164,000,000 is for
hazardous fuels management activities, of which
$10,000,000 is for resilient landscapes activities: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $18,035,000 is for
burned area rehabilitation:..
Page 710
FLAME WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION RESERVE FUND
(INCLUDING TRANSFER OF FUNDS)
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of the Interior and as a
reserve fund for suppression and Federal emergency
response activities, $92,000,000, to remain available until
expended: Provided, That such amounts are only available
for transfer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account
following a declaration by the Secretary in accordance
with section 502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C.
1748a).

Senate hearing on USFS fire funding, Wednesday morning

Tuesday, July 15 at 10:30 ET the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the Administration’s budget request of $4.8 billion for the U.S. Forest Service in fiscal year 2015, which begins October 1, 2014. One of the prime topics of discussion is expected to be the President’s proposal to fund some wildfires in a manner similar to other natural disasters, keeping the funds separate from non-fire activities. This method of funding is supported by western lawmakers and the Western Governors’ Association, but there is opposition from some Republican politicians.

Several competing bills have been introduced that have similar provisions. They would all protect the US. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior routine budget items from being pillaged in order to pay firefighting bills. Senator John McCain last week introduced another bill with many of the same goals, but in addition his legislation would encourage timber harvesting and thinning, while streamlining some of the environmental restrictions that might otherwise slow down the projects.

As usual in hearings like this, it is likely that the topic of federal air tankers will be discussed.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing will be web-cast live at 10:30 ET, Tuesday. (the link was corrected)

President’s proposed fire budget calls for modest increases

Dollar Sign

The President of the United States has released the administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which begins October 1, 2014. President Obama is requesting a 4.8 percent increase in the wildland fire budget for the U.S. Forest Service and a 7.1 percent increase in the fire budgets of the four agencies in the Department of the Interior with wildland fire programs.

Of course there are two disclaimers. It is only a proposal from the Administration. And, Congress, which has not passed a budget in four of the last five years, must vote to pass it or come up with one of their own. Getting Congress to agree on what day of the week it is would probably be difficult.

The Department of the Interior’s fire budget is 8 percent of the size of the USFS fire budget. Fewer details were released about the DOI budget but they requested a 4.3 percent increase in funding for hazardous fuel management and a 7.1 percent bump in wildland fire management.

More information about the USFS proposal is below.

FY 2015 proposed USFS fire budget FY 2015 Proposed USFS budget resources summary

The USFS included the information below

The FY15 President’s Budget , which include legacy airtankers, next generation large airtankers, and an agency owned C-130H aircraft. The Forest Service will exercise options under the exclusive use contracts for additional airtankers, if necessary. The agency will also phase out the legacy airtankers as the next generation large airtankers become available, thereby maintaining between 18 to 28 contracted and agency-owned next generation large airtankers as identified in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) transferred seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The aircraft will initially be transferred to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting and installation of a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for airtanker missions in late 2014.

The NDAA provided $130,000,000 to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting all seven aircraft and $5,000,000 each for the installation of the retardant delivery system. The Forest Service will pay for operation and maintenance of the C-130Hs within our requested budget by implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability. Programmatic efficiencies include implementation of the optimized dispatching analysis, streamlining of our information technology (IT) investments through the Wildland Fire IT initiative and a decrease in programmatic administrative costs, such as managing aviation assets under national contracts, streamlined hiring processes, centralizing training opportunities, and shared fire leadership positions between administrative units.

Some interesting passages above include the fact that this proposal “will fund 25 airtankers under exclusive use contracts”, which would be a huge increase from the 9 under contract in 2014. If they receive funding for 25, but actually produce a much smaller number, we will have some questions.

And, one of the seven C-130H aircraft the USFS got from the Coast Guard may be fully retrofitted as an air tanker and could be available before the end of 2014. Gannet newspapers wrote that two of them will not need to have their wing boxes replaced, a 10-month process that costs $6.7 million each. Of course all seven of them need to have retardant tank systems installed.

Another interesting part was “…implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability.”

The administration intends to maintain the same number of USFS firefighters as for the two previous years, 10,000. We went through the budgets as far back as FY 2002 and accumulated the following statistics about the number of firefighters in the agency. Obviously the number for 2015 is proposed.

Number of USFS firefighters, 2002 - 2015

Next we have the average size of fires. As they grow larger, the number of USFS firefighters has remained the same or decreased.

Average fire size, United States, excluding Alaska

Note: Alaska, the northernmost state, was not included in the above analysis because the state has numerous very, very large fires in remote areas that sometimes are not suppressed at all. Including these low priority fires which can exceed 100,000 acres each would skew the averages.

 
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ken.

Federal spending on wildfires is increasing

Mitch Tobin, writing for EcoWest, poured through wildfire data at the National Interagency Fire Center website and reassembled it into very interesting graphic representations illustrating how federal spending on wildfires has changed over the last 15 to 30 years. Much of the raw data came from this table.

Click on the images below to see larger versions.

Federal spending on wildfires is increasing

Federal spending on wildfires

Cost per wildfire acre

Wildfire briefing, September 1, 2013

Rim Fire becomes fourth largest in California history

Yosemite Valley's Half Dome obscured by smoke
Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome, normally seen in this view, was obscured by smoke at 8:36 a.m. September 1, 2013

Our main article about the Rim Fire is updated daily but here are a few recent facts about the fire. On Saturday it continued to grow, adding another 3,000 acres to become at 222,77 acres the fourth largest fire in California history. Winds that shifted to come out of the west over the last two days have blown smoke into downtown Yosemite National Park, into the heavily visited Yosemite Valley. Compare these two photos of the valley; the one above was taken Sunday morning by a web cam, and the photo below we took on a day when the air was much cleaner. The fire is still eight to ten miles away from Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley January, 1997
Yosemite Valley January, 1997, a few days after a flood caused major damage to National Park Service facilities in the valley. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 5,115 personnel assigned to the fire are fighting it by constructing direct fireline along the fire’s edge, and by indirect methods including burning out the fuel ahead of the fire. The smoke has limited the use of air tankers and helicopters for the last two days.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the fire may have been caused by activities at an illegal marijuana farm.

“We don’t know the exact cause,” Todd McNeal, fire chief in Twain Harte, a town that has been in the path of the flames, said on Friday. But he told a community meeting that it was “highly suspect that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing.”

“We know it’s human caused. There was no lightning in the area,” he said.

LA Times article about the Rim Fire

Julie Cart, who with Bettina Boxall wrote a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles in 2008 about wildfires for the Los Angeles Times, has a new article about the Rim Fire. She mentions how firefighting policy differs between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, but greatly over-simplifies to the point of distortion the concept of “fire use” fires which are not aggressively and immediately suppressed.

Reuters: how budgets affect fires

Reuters has an article about how federal budgets may be contributing to the occurrence of larger fires by reducing the number of fuel treatment projects and prescribed fires. They have a quote from Jonathan B. Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service:

Part of the problem, experts and many fire officials say, is that funding has been low for the controlled burns and forest-thinning work that makes it harder for a wildfire to spread.

“We’ve got to invest up front in terms of controlling and managing these fires,” said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service from his smoke-filled post in Yosemite National Park. “Just waiting for the big fire and then throwing everything you’ve got at it makes no sense.”

In recent years, Jarvis said, the trend has been to shift money from fire prevention to firefighting.

Montana Supreme Court will decide case about firefighting strategy

The Montana Supreme Court will make a decision by November that could have an effect on how firefighters select a strategy for suppressing a fire. A Montana rancher who said firefighters’ backfires ruined his ranch won a suit against the state of Montana in 2012 which is being appealed to the Supreme Court. A jury awarded Fred and Joan Weaver $730,000 in a trial over the strategy and tactics that were used on the Ryan Gulch fire in 2000 – $150,000 was for the loss of timber, $200,000 for rehabilitation of pasture land, and the balance was for the mental suffering and anguish of seeing their ranch threatened by the fire. About 900 acres of the Weaver’s land burned during the fire.

The heart of the Weavers’ case was their contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of their ranch.

We wrote an analysis of the 2012 court decision last year.

Recent articles at Fire Aviation

Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshot crew nearly paid for itself

When the Granite Mountain Hotshots worked on federal fires the terms were established by their contract or agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The Prescott Fire Department paid the personnel on the crew around $12 an hour according to The Daily Courier, but the department was reimbursed by the federal government at the rate of $39.50 an hour. Below is an excerpt from the article:

In fiscal year 2012, the city estimated that the crew brought in $1,375,191, and had $1,437,444 in operating expenses – for a difference of $62,253.

On June 30 of this year 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona. A controversy is brewing in Prescott and the state of Arizona about the differences in compensation for the survivors of the seasonal and permanent firefighters on the crew.

It is not unusual for firefighting resources that are contracted to the federal government through local fire departments to be compensated at rates far higher than those at which federal firefighters are paid.

 

Thanks go out to Dick