Washington Lands Commissioner: state legislators “didn’t seem to care about the public’s safety”

The Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington State is very disappointed that the legislature approved only one-third of the increase he requested to beef up the number of fire engines and helicopter crews in the Department of Natural Resources for initial attack on new fires.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the News Tribune:

State lawmakers didn’t hesitate to pay $70 million to cover the costs of fighting last year’s wildfires after the flames died down.

But now, as wildfires again rage across the state, the head of the state’s chief wildland firefighting agency says he’s frustrated the Legislature wouldn’t pay a fraction of that amount to help stop new fires from getting out of control.

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said he got less than one-third of what he requested for early fire response in the state’s new two-year budget, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law late Tuesday.

“The Legislature has left me in a precarious position, with what I view as insufficient resources to meet the threat,” said Goldmark, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources. “Even in the face of (the current fires) and the threat to public safety that those fires contained, the Legislature didn’t seem to care about the public’s safety at all.”

[…]

On Friday, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center reported more than a half-dozen large fires active throughout the state.

Fires scorched more than 400,000 acres in 2014, the most destructive fire season in state history.

Following that record-setting fire season, Goldmark requested more funding from the Legislature to staff additional fire engines and helicopter crews — about $4.5 million above what the agency received in its previous two-year budget for fire response. Yet in the state’s new $38.2 billion spending plan, Goldmark got only $1.2 million of the extra funding he requested.

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Concepts for proposed wildland fire legislation

The Democratic Staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has prepared a list of concepts, called a White Paper, that potentially could be included in a very broad and far reaching bill that would direct land management agencies in their efforts to manage wildland fires.

Nothing in the document is etched in stone. The next step is for staff members of a handful of Senators to meet, discuss the draft document, and produce a list of surviving concepts that could be expanded upon to be included in the proposed legislation. Then those items will be fleshed out in a language that would be appropriate for the bill. The expectation is that the legislation will be introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell in a few weeks.

Having Congress produce a long list of rules or requirements about how wildland fire agencies will conduct their routine business is new to me. While it is common for a Senator or Representative to loudly express their opinion about how land should be managed, and sometimes produce legislation when Congress can actually function, for them to write a lengthly guidebook for wildfire is, to be frank, TERRIFYING.

The intent of the soon to be written legislation, as we understand it, is not that Congress will write a bunch of very detailed rules, but the legislation will require that the Forest Service and the Department of Interior agencies write the rules that will be mentioned in general terms in the legislation.

There could be some good to come out of this. For example, I understand that Senator Maria Cantwell has opened the door to including language in the bill that would revise or repeal Public Law 107-203 that was passed in 2002 as a knee-jerk reaction to the ThirtyMile Fire the previous year. That horrendous law resulted in a crewboss on that 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.

However, companies that sell professional liability insurance to firefighters are raking in the dough. I am going to suggest to the Committee that the bill include language similar to that in 10 U.S.C. 2254(d), which gives military personnel some protection from prosecution if they provide information about an aircraft accident.

What ideas do you have about the concepts in this White Paper, or, what SHOULD be in wildfire legislation? If you leave a comment before June 22, 2015, there will be a better chance of it being seen by people in D.C., (some of whom have been known to visit this website) — and who knows, it may have an influence on the final outcome.

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Wildfire funding bill reintroduced in the Senate

The legislation that would eliminate taking money from non-fire accounts to pay for the suppression of wildfires has been reintroduced by U.S. Senators John McCain (AZ), John Barrasso (WY), and Jeff Flake (AZ). The bill, called the FLAME Act Amendments of 2015, not only reduces fire borrowing, but also shortens the environmental review process for forest treatment projects and may increase timber harvesting on federal lands.

“Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” said Senator McCain. “There are similar proposals in Congress that support fire suppression spending, but they don’t as clearly guarantee funding for forest treatment programs, put an end to fire-borrowing, or promote the utility of private timber industry as this legislation does. We need to end the current practice of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at wildfires year after year and begin to aggressively manage our forests.”

Rather than budgeting for wildfires using just 70 percent of a 10-year historic average of suppression expenditures as the Obama Administration proposed in its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, this bill requires the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to budget for 100 percent of their suppression costs using the most accurate budget forecast model available (known as the “FLAME regression model”). The bill also would prohibit federal agencies from raiding non-wildfire accounts to pay for wildfires, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.”

While the Administration’s proposal would allow wildfire spending to automatically exceed statutory budget caps on disaster funding, this legislation would establish a limited process for accessing emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire, while investing aggressively in suppression and forest management programs. Finally, this bill would establish a streamlined environmental review process to expedite forest treatment projects across 7.5 million acres of federal land and promote the use of private industry under forest stewardship contracts.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and can be tracked at Congress.gov.

SUMMARY OF McCAIN-BARRASSO-FLAKE WILDFIRE BILL

  • Prohibits Forest Service and the Interior Department from “fire-borrowing” from all accounts not connected to wildfire management.
  • Requires FS/DOI to use the best available budget forecast model to plan its wildfire season and fully fund its suppression operations at 100 percent. Currently, FS uses a 10-year historic average of past wildfire spending to predict its future needs, which isn’t keeping pace with the increase in size and cost of wildfires.
  • Establishes a narrowly tailored process to access emergency funds in the event of a catastrophic wildfire that exhausts suppression accounts, but also requires Appropriators to invest in hazardous fuels reduction projects and insect disease treatment projects.
  • In order to access this emergency process for catastrophic wildfires, two things must happen: (1) 100 percent of the suppression needs must be funded; and (2) a number equal to 50 percent of the suppression costs must go to hazardous fuel reduction projects like those authorized under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003, the Tribal Forests Protection Act, and landscape scale forest restoration.
  • Incentivizes more funding to the HFRA (which is authorized at $760 million a year) to prevent future wildfires near rural communities and bring down forest suppression costs over the long term.
  • Requires Forest Service to treat 7.5 million acres of federal land designated as “Forest Management Emphasis Areas” within 15 years under an expedited environmental review process.
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Bills introduced in Washington legislature to increase use of local firefighting resources

Representative Joel Kretz of Waconda, Washington has introduced several bills in the legislature that would affect wildland firefighting.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources does not agree with all proposals in every bill, but the DNR has worked with Rep. Kretz to craft a bill containing the concepts they can support, according to the Yakima Herald.

That bill is HB 2093. One of the provisions would authorize an individual to enter privately owned or publicly owned land for the purposes of attempting to extinguish a wildland fire, regardless of whether the individual owns the land. The person would also be protected from civil or criminal liability.

There are some caveats, such as, the individual would not be allowed to fight fire with fire, that is, they could not ignite burnouts or backfires. They would also have to believe that suppression measures would extinguish the fire, and they would be required to notify emergency personnel and the landowner prior to entering the land or within a reasonable time.

Another provision of the bill requires the DNR to conduct outreach to provide basic Incident Command System and wildland fire safety training to landowners in possession of firefighting capability to help ensure that any wildland fire suppression actions taken by private landowners on their own land are accomplished safely and in coordination with any related incident command structure.

The DNR would be required to cooperate with federal wildland firefighting agencies to
maximize the efficient use of local resources in close proximity to wildland fire incidents.

There will be two hearings on the legislation this week. On February 17 a public hearing is scheduled in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources at 10:00 AM. On February 19 there will be an executive session in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources at 1:30 PM.

Other pending legislation in Washington state related to wildland fire sponsored by Rep. Krertz:

  • HB 1508: Providing permissive authority for counties to assume authority over local forest fire management.
  • HB 1677: Giving preference to using the nearest available qualified firefighters upon notification of a forest fire.
  • HB 1699: Addressing legal immunity in instances of citizen-initiated wildfire control.
  • HB 1237: Providing landowners with necessary tools for the protection of their property from forest fires.
  • HB 1509: Giving priority selection to forest fire suppression resource contractors that are located geographically close to fire suppression activities.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.

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Legislation introduced in Montana to fine feds for wildfire smoke

Beaver Fire

Smoke rises from the Beaver Fire northwest of Yreka, California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

In recent summers, Gallatin Valley residents have sometimes had to endure poor air quality from wildfire smoke, so a Bozeman legislator wants Montana to be able to fine the federal government for that.

In a Natural Resources Committee hearing this week, Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, presented House Bill 340, which would require the Department of Environmental Quality “to fine the federal government for fires on certain federal lands that contribute to exceedance of air quality standards.”

Burnett provided the committee a graphic of the smoke from wildfires in 2012 and the readings from the 11 DEQ monitoring stations in Montana, most of which registered unhealthy air quality on various days.
“Smoke pollution compromises public health. Under this bill, the DEQ determines whether mismanaged federal lands are responsible for any part of breaching of the air standard. If they are, the federal government is corrected in the same way an industrial polluter would be,” Burnett said at the Wednesday hearing. “Federal land managers should manage the forests so it does not cause air pollution.”…

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Legislation reintroduced to change the way wildfires are funded

Legislation has been reintroduced in the House of Representatives that would change the way wildfires are funded by the federal government. Even though it had broad bipartisan support last year, Congress could not be bothered to vote on the bill which would fund fires in much the same way as other natural disasters.

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson and Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader reintroduced the legislation which would make common sense changes to the federal wildfire budget.  H.R. 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was cosponsored by nearly 150 Members of Congress and supported by a broad coalition of over 300 organizations in the 113th Congress, aims to make sure the way we budget for wildfire suppression activities makes sense by ending the destructive cycle of fire borrowing and treating catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters.

“There are a number of steps that we need to take to address forest health and management issues, but fixing the wildfire suppression budget must be the first one,” said Simpson.  “Until we address this issue, anything we do to increase needed management activities in the forests, like hazardous fuels removal, timber harvest, conservation, or trail maintenance, will continue to be lost in fire transfers.  Fixing the wildfire budget is the critical first step in making our forests healthier and, ultimately, reducing the cost of wildfires in the future.”

“Treating catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters – such as hurricanes and tornadoes – means land management agencies can adequately prepare for the future without jeopardizing their annual funding,” said Congressman Schrader. “ Each year, critical forestry programs face unnecessary budget cuts because they are forced to transfer funds from successful forest management practices to pay for wildfire suppression.  Freeing up those financial resources to enhance catastrophic fire prevention programs will ultimately reduce costs on the federal government and help us better prevent wildfires in the future.”

H.R. 167 would budget for catastrophic wildfires in the same way as other natural disasters, like floods and hurricanes.  Under the bill, routine wildland firefighting costs, which make up about 70% of the cost of wildfire suppression, would be funded through the normal budgeting and appropriations process.  The true emergency fire events, which represent about 1% of wildland fires but make up 30% of costs, would be treated like similar major natural disasters and funded under existing disaster programs.

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