House of Representatives adjourns without taking action on fire funding bill

Myrtle Fire
Firefighters conduct a burnout on the Myrtle Fire along Song Dog Road, June 22, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. House of Representatives shut down for the rest of the year today without taking action on a bill that would have improved the way wildfires on federal land are funded.

Below is an article from the National Association of State Foresters:

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December 9, 2016 (Arlington, Va.) — With the bipartisan energy bill now stalled in Congress, time has run out for a permanent and comprehensive fire funding solution to be enacted this year. A fire funding fix was included in the most final drafts of the energy bill, but the House of Representatives concluded its business for the year without acting on the bill.

The Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus, a diverse set of international, national, tribal, and local organizations interested in sustainable land management, strongly supported a fire funding fix and hoped to see it passed through this Congress. Last month, [129] groups signed a letter asking House and Senate leaders to ensure a comprehensive fire funding solution.

“Congress let an incredible opportunity to fix the fire funding problem slip through its fingers by not acting on the energy bill this year,” said Cecilia Clavet of The Nature Conservancy, on behalf of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus. “The lack of a funding solution will continue the negative effects to all other programs funded through the Interior appropriations bill. We are indebted to all the members of the House and Senate who supported a fire funding fix, and are especially grateful for the efforts and commitment of Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell. In getting us closer this year, we hope we can get to a final point of success in the next Congress.”

“This problem of rising suppression costs stripping resources from non-fire programs is not going away, and we are eager to continue efforts to solve this problem in the next Congress,” concluded Clavet. “The incredibly broad spectrum of groups supporting this legislation clearly demonstrates this is not a partisan issue, but one that affects the health of people, water, and wildlife.”

“The National Association of State Foresters is disappointed that Congress missed an opportunity to address wildfire funding challenges this year. However, we recognize that there is more bipartisan support than ever before for a resolution. In order to conserve, protect and enhance America’s forests, leaders in Congress must address this challenge before the spring wildfire season begins,” said Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester and President of the National Association of State Foresters.

“For almost a decade, a diverse coalition has advocated for reform in the way wildfire suppression is paid for, citing the serious damage to natural resource programs, many of which, if adequately funded, would reduce the catastrophic impacts of such fires,” said James L Caswell, Chairman of the Board at the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “It is astounding that over this time Congress was not able to find a solution, despite these best efforts. As a result, America’s rural communities continue to be threatened by the failure of Congress to come to agreement. As we look to the new year, we hope the 115th Congress will recognize that solving this problem will protect lives, help to restore forests, increase employment in forest dependent and adjacent communities, and take the next step to enactment. We need to get this fixed!”

Senator wants to require more steps before beginning a prescribed fire

Senator John Thune has been critical of federal firefighters previously.

A U.S. Senator has proposed an amendment to introduced legislation that would require additional procedures before federal agencies could conduct a prescribed fire. Senator John Thune from South Dakota wants to require consultation with local and state fire officials before the project begins. One of his reasons is that he contends local and state officials know more than the federal professional prescribed fire managers.

“Local officials are going to know a little bit more about what the conditions are in the area”, Senator Thune said in a newsletter distributed by his office on September 15.

This requirement has been offered as an amendment to a Republican backed bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas June 22, 2016, titled S.3085 – Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Senator Thune contends that the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent during a Senate Agriculture Committee markup, but no official action after the introduction is showing up at bill-tracking websites. After three months the bill has no cosponsors, and GovTrack.us predicts a 2 percent chance of it being enacted.

The primary purpose of the bill is to eliminate some environment restrictions for planned “forest management activities”. The list of these activities is long and vague enough to cover a very wide range of land treatments, including timber harvesting.

Senator Thune advocated his consultation procedure before when he introduced a stand-alone bill in 2015. It had one cosponsor and never advanced beyond being introduced. Apparently the powerful Senator did not work hard to promote his idea, or perhaps he only wanted some publicity. 

Senator Thune has generated publicity before in matters regarding prescribed fire. In 2015 he distributed to the media a strongly-worded very critical letter he sent to the Secretary of the Interior after the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota escaped, burning an additional 5,420 acres of prairie. It never spread beyond the park boundaries.

Four days after the escape and months before the official report came out, the Senator was apparently very satisfied that he knew exactly the cause, writing to the Secretary, “The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented”, and “the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.”

Ready. Fire. Aim.

Cold Brook Fire
Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the Cold Brook prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was intended to burn. Photo taken a few days after the fire by Bill Gabbert.
Wind Cave prescribed fire
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The escaped fire was in grass and ground fuels beneath scattered trees that had been treated with prescribed fire before, and there was no significant crowning. It was basically over after one afternoon, but that didn’t stop Senator Thune from prognosticating about the lung condition of calves outside the park.

Congress takes another tentative step toward developing a wildland fire bill

The Senators hope the public will give them input on the proposal.

Five U.S. Senators are supporting a concept for a bill, or as they call it, a “discussion draft”, that would affect wildland firefighting. The document is being floated as a trial balloon to solicit input. If the draft ever becomes a proposed bill, it will no doubt look different in its final form, with some provisions added and others removed.

“In an effort to move the discussion forward, we are asking for feedback on a diverse set of ideas to tackle the challenges of catastrophic wildfires,” said Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the panel’s top Democrat. “While not perfect, we are working to drive the discussion toward consensus and a 21st century management strategy.”

Fire Funding

Named the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016”, it would begin by fixing the inadequate funding of suppressing wildfires, ending the cumbersome practice of having to borrow funds from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression costs. This issue has been cussed and discussed ad infinitum for years with broad bipartisan support, but Congress has failed to take any meaningful action on the problem.

The Holy Grail

One issue that we have written about many times and called the “Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety”, is addressed. Our concept is to provide two pieces of real time information to the management team or supervisors on a wildfire: the location of the fire and the location of firefighters.

The discussion draft addresses the fire’s location by requiring that Federal and State wildland firefighting agencies develop, by March 1, 2018, “protocols and plans for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) … to detect spot fires, assess fire behavior, develop tactical and strategic firefighting plans, position crews, and enhance firefighters’ safety”. And it mentions an “ortho rectified map”. Sadly, it does not specifically require that a system be implemented that will provide the information in real or near-real time, but if you’re going to hit every item on that list, it pretty much has to be real time data, or close to it.

The other half of the Holy Grail, the location of firefighters, is also covered. By March 1, 2018 the Departments of Interior and Agriculture “shall jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire crews assigned to Federal Type 1 Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams”. Their locations would be depicted on an ortho rectified map developed by the UAS.

Unified system for carding firefighting aircraft

There would be a single system, by March 1, 2018, “for providing credentials to all Federal and State-certified aircraft, personnel (including pilots and maintenance personnel), and firefighting support equipment for fires on Federal land and for firefighting operations conducted by, or in cooperation with, Federal agencies”. Until that system is up and running, all Federal and State wildland firefighting agencies would accept the standards of each other.

Miscellaneous

Other provisions would ease some environmental regulations for certain hazard fuel reduction projects, require an inventory of 452,000 acres of young-growth timber stands on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and make any money left over from fire suppression funds at the end of the year available for hazard fuel reduction projects. (If you’re thinking inventorying half a million acres of the Tongass NF has nothing to do with wildland fire, you are correct.)

Supporters

If this discussion draft morphs into actual legislation, more Senators will publicly support it, but for now the list includes Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Ron ‎Wyden (D-OR), Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID), and Senator James Risch (R-ID).

A previous trial balloon

In July of 2015 the Democratic Staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources prepared a list of concepts, called a White Paper, that also was a hopeful step toward an actual bill. It had one important provision that is lacking in this latest discussion draft. It would have revised or repealed Public Law 107-203 that was passed in 2002 as a reaction to the ThirtyMile Fire the previous year. That law resulted in a crew boss on the fire being charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. Since then firefighters that witness accidents have been advised to lawyer-up and reveal as little as possible about what they know, reducing the opportunities for learning lessons — possibly resulting in more firefighter fatalities down the road. This law has also led to accident investigations and fatality reports that do not identify the causes, squandering learning opportunities.

The revision or repeal of Public Law 107-203 is very important.

You can read the entire Discussion Draft HERE.

If you have an opinion about what is, or is not in this discussion draft, contact your Senators and/or put your thoughts in a comment below.

Forest Service Chief vows to protect communities “no matter what the budget”

Tom Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 6, 2016.

Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, discussed the 2016 wildfire season in two venues recently. Earlier this month he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and on Wednesday he talked with the Associated Press while he was in Denver for a conference about forest health.

In Denver Chief Tidwell discussed the outlook for the wildfire season, funding for fire suppression, and Smokey Bear.

Here are some excerpts from the AP article, and below that we have information about the committee testimony.

The upcoming wildfire season across the U.S. isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s infernos, when a record 15,800 square miles burned, the nation’s top wildland firefighting official said Wednesday.

But parts of the nation should expect a rough season after a warm, dry winter or because of long-term drought, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Southern California, other parts of the Southwest, Alaska and Montana are all vulnerable, he said.

“So where we anticipate the severity of the fire season will not be at the same level as last year, we still expect to have some areas that will be really active,” Tidwell said.

[…]

The overall bill for wildfires, including prevention programs and the cost of putting crews, equipment and aircraft on fire lines, is consuming a growing share of the Forest Service budget. That has forced cuts in forestry research, campground and trail maintenance and other areas, Tidwell said.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pay the cost of fighting the worst fires from natural disaster funds, rather than the Forest Service budget. Tidwell said the largest 1 or 2 percent of wildfires account for about 30 percent of the costs.

Congress has not agreed to the change, but it did approve an additional $520 million for fighting fires this season, Tidwell said.

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With a chuckle and a smile, Tidwell defended Smokey Bear, his agency’s memorable mascot, from allegations of making things worse by portraying fire as evil instead of part of the natural cycle that kept forests healthy. Smokey’s original message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

“Really, Smokey was just talking about those human-caused fires which actually occur at the wrong time of the year, not where the natural fire occurs,” Tidwell said. Those are the fires that the Forest Service still wants to stop, he said.

“Smokey Bear gets no blame for the situation we have today,” he said.

On April 6 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief Tidwell discussed many different USFS responsibilities. In his introductory remarks, he summarized wildland fire at 38:50 in the video. (I could not get the video to play using the Chrome browser, but it worked with Firefox. This probably has something to do with the government using Flash to serve the video, a much-hated and insecure platform.) 

The budget request also will provide for the level of fire suppression resources that are needed to be able to protect not only the national forests but to provide the support for the states and our local firefighters. We’ll have the adequate number of large air tankers this year, we’ll have the helicopters, the hot shot crews that we need to be able to continue to provide that support when we work in conjunction with our states and local fires.

Later in the hearing, at 1:07:01 in the video, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall brought up the issue of fire borrowing, scavenging money from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression when the fire funds are depleted during a busy fire season. The Senator mentioned the Chief’s boss, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Secretary apparently had said that funds would not be taken from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression.

Senator Udall:

Secretary Vilsack has been very public in his disappointment about failing to pass the disaster cap adjustment. He has stated for the record that he will not authorize transfers for fire suppression. He said that most recently at the Agriculture appropriations hearing last month. That essentially bars the normal practice of fire borrowing as you know. As I said in my opening statement I share the Secretary’s frustration that we don’t have a cap adjustment in law yet and I hope this is the year that we will be able to enact a fix for the firefighting budget. But until that happens, we must be clear. We expect the Forest Service to use all of its existing legal authority to fight catastrophic wildfires. Chief Tidwell can you assure us that when the time comes the agency will use all available tools to protect the public and the nation’s resources from wildfires.

Chief Tidwell replied:

Senator we will continue to carry out our responsibilities on the ground to be able to protect the communities no matter what the budget. I share the Secretary’s urgency and as I shared with the Chair earlier, the longer this issue goes on the less and less discretion you have to be able to solve it… We will continue to work with the committee, and I am optimistic that so far with the projections that we should be OK with the level of additional funding you have provided. But as the season progresses we definitely will have ongoing discussions about informing the Committee about where we are with the rate of expenditures so that hopefully we can avoid that situation of running out of money for fire suppression this year.

The statement about protecting communities “no matter what the budget” reminded me of an article we posted on April 25, when Jerry Williams, the former Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, in 1995 talked about can-do, make-do, and tragedy.

After the discussion of fire-borrowing, at 1:09:05 in the video Senator Udall asked about the plans for utilizing the seven HC-130H aircraft that in 2013 began the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. They will become the first government-owned/contractor-operated air tankers in the United States federal government. All of them are receiving programmed depot maintenance and will need to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to new paint. Most of them will also have the wing boxes replaced, a process that takes about 10 months and around $7 million per aircraft.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015. In 2016 it will be replaced by another HC-130H that may have the new USFS-approved paint scheme.

In the meantime, this year, like last year, there will be one HC-130H available for firefighting based at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. It will use a borrowed slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) since the Air Force, responsible for maintaining and retrofitting the seven aircraft, has not yet arranged to install the permanent retardant tanks.

Chief Tidwell told the Committee he expects the seven HC-130H air tankers to be operational on the following schedule:

2016: one
2017: two
2018: four
2019: seven, all with permanent retardant delivery systems

Washington lawmakers introduce bill to allow more prescribed fires

The bill would relax some air quality and permitting regulations so as not to impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires.

Above: a firefighter watches the progress of the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest near Hill City, South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill in the Washington legislature that would allow more prescribed fires in the central and eastern parts of the state. House Bill 2928 could reduce the number of projects that are disapproved due to air quality regulations.

The goal is to encourage forest managers to reduce the amount of fuel that would be available during a wildfire, or as the bill states, “ensure that restrictions on outdoor burning for air quality reasons do not impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires”.

If a prescribed fire were to be disapproved due to air quality concerns, the officials would first have to take into account “the likelihood and magnitude of subsequent air pollution from an unplanned and uncontrolled fire if the burn permit is refused, revoked, or postponed”.

In addition, burn permits would be issued that span multiple days for forest resiliency burning. A burn permit spanning multiple days would only be revoked or postponed midway during the duration of the permit when necessary for the safety of adjacent property or upon a determination that the burn has significantly contributed to a violation of air quality standards.

On February 16, the bill passed the House on a unanimous vote.

On February 29 at 12:30 p.m. a hearing on the bill is scheduled in the Senate Committee on Ways & Means.

Los Angeles Times op ed on reforming wildfire funding

Outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs.

Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington,  August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.

The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:

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“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.

[…]

If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.

This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.

[…]

The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.

This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.

Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.

Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”