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:
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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.”