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

House proposes large budget cuts for USFS and Department of Interior

Dollar SignThe House of Representatives has proposed a large budget cut for the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior. The numbers are about 20 percent below President Obama’s budget request and about 14 percent below current sequestered funding levels, according to Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding at the Wilderness Society.

Below are excerpts from an article at eenews:

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“It’s an allocation that would have devastating impacts for our lands, water and wildlife,” [Alan Rwosome] said. “At these funding levels, we would see massive and devastating park and wildlife refuge closures, less and less law enforcement officers protecting the public, and almost no resources to fight wildfires across the country.”

[…]

The House’s Interior-EPA allocation could change, especially if the chamber receives a new top-line funding level as a result of a budget agreement with the Senate, a House aide said. But it is unclear whether the two chambers will be able to reach such an accord.

The current allocation would put significant pressure on subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) over how to fund programs important to constituents including conservationists, park and wildlife advocates, clean water groups, states, and Indian tribes.

[…]

Simpson last month warned that if Congress continues to tackle the deficit through discretionary spending — which accounts for about one-third of overall spending — he may soon be forced to zero out funding to some Interior programs.

“Do we come to the point where we say there are just some things we’re not going to do, and eliminate them and at least concentrate on the parts that we do well?” he asked at an April budget hearing for Interior. “That’s a tough choice.”

Cutting funding for Simpson’s agencies is particularly difficult given the high fixed costs of programs like wildfire funding — which consumes roughly half of the Forest Service budget — and the Indian Health Service, according to one former House appropriations aide.

“They’re going to have to figure out sizable things to just stop doing,” the former aide said.

Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April told Simpson his agency was “limping along” under sequestration cuts, which have resulted in fewer park police, reduced services at parks, more than $110 million in cuts in payments to states, reduced youth hiring and furloughs.

 

Thanks go out to Chris

President recommends reduced budgets for wildland fire

The President is recommending reduced budgets next fiscal year for the federal land management agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities. In his budget released on Wednesday President Obama desires to slash by 41 percent the funds allocated for the five agencies for reducing hazardous fuels, and the preparedness and suppression budget would be cut by 8 percent. The amount set aside for the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund would remain about the same.

The four Department of Interior Agencies would see a reduction of 512 FTEs (full time equivalent employees) to 3,445, down from 3,957 in FY 2012. Those four agencies are the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Below, we assembled some of the numbers from documents released by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture:

President's proposed FY-2014 budget for wildland fire

It should be noted that the chances of this proposal being enacted exactly as recommended are somewhere between slim and none. Congress has not passed a federal budget in four years, and even if they did get one signed for Fiscal Year 2014 which begins in October, 2013, it would no doubt be different from what the President desires, after it makes its way through the dysfunctional House and Senate chambers.

On March 23 the Senate passed another version of a budget for Fiscal Year 2014.

Here are a couple of excerpts from information supplied by the two Departments about the President’s proposed budget. First, Interior, about Hazardous Fuels:
Continue reading “President recommends reduced budgets for wildland fire”

Proposed federal wildfire budget contains mostly cuts, with some increases

President Obama has released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. At this point it is merely a suggestion until Congress passes appropriation or spending cap bills.

The budget fully funds the 10-year average cost of wildland fire suppression operations, but there is a reduction in the funding of the treatment of hazardous fuels — by 24% in the Department of Agriculture and by 21% in the Department of Interior.

The numbers in the table below are in millions, and represent the proposed wildfire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies within the Department of Interior.

2012 2013 Change
USFS Preparedness 1,004 1,001 -3
USFS Suppression 853 931 +78
USFS Hazardous Fuels 317 242 -75
USDA State & Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants 99 84 -15
DOI Preparedness 277 280 +3
DOI Suppression 81 277 +196
DOI Hazardous Fuels 183 145 -38
DOI Rural Fire Assistance (was $7 million in 2011) 0 0 0

In the Department of Interior’s justification for the 21% reduction in the hazardous fuels budget, they invoked the name of a U.S. Forest Service researcher, Jack Coehn, who has studied the wildland urban interface:

The Wildland Fire Management account in DOI supports wildland fire preparedness, suppression, rehabilitation, and hazardous fuels reduction activities.  When targeted properly, hazardous fuels reduction activities (e.g., removing brush and small trees in strategic locations) can reduce impacts from wildfires, including threats to public safety, suppression costs, and damage to natural and cultural resources.
DOI and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have agreed on several actions to reduce impacts from wildfires, such as:  1) prioritizing fuels treatments that have been identified as key components of Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are cost effective; and 2) expanding wildland fire use as a means of treating fuels.
Although funding for hazardous fuels treatments has quadrupled since 2000, the previous policy of treatingthe greatest number of acres possible has led to a patchwork of hazardous fuels treatment that has not been as focused as it could have been on reducing risks in the WUI.  As suggested by Forest Service scientists, extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change whether or not homes in the WUI catch on fire.  However, when there is a clear priority of treating acres within the WUI, hazardous fuels treatments can be more effective in reducing risk.
1,2 In 2013, the Forest Service and DOI will target fuels management activities to mitigate hazards and enhance the ability to control fires in WUI.  The agencies will focus funding for hazardous fuels treatments in communities that are on track to meet Firewise standards and have identified acres to be treated in Community Wildfire Protection Plans (or the equivalent) and have made an investment in implementing local solutions to protect against wildland fire.
Citations
1  Cohen, Jack D.,  Wildland-Urban Fire  – A different approach, USDA Forest Service, unpublished research synthesis, Rocky Mountain Research Station, http://www.firewise.org/resources/files/WUI_HIR/Wildlandurbanfire-approach.pdf.
2  Cohen, Jack D.,  Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes:  Where and How Much?, USDA Forest Service Gen.Tech.Rep. PSW-GTR-173 (1999), http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_1999_cohen_j001.pdf.

The Department of Agriculture explained their reduction in the U.S. Forest Service’s hazardous fuels budget, saying that “though the majority of the inexpensive locations have now been treated to reduce hazardous fuels,  FS is also furthering its efforts to focus its hazardous fuels treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface in areas that are identified in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are highest priority.”