Senate hearing in Seattle August 27 about wildland fire management

Below is the witness list for a field hearing that will be held before the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday, August 27, 2015 at 11:30 a.m. PDT in the Pigott Auditorium of Seattle University (located at Su Campus Walk). The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony on opportunities to improve the organizational response of the Federal agencies in the management of wildland fires.

Senate hearing list wildland fire

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Some congressmen want to increase logging by suspending environmental laws

North Pole Fire Custer

North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD, March 3, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The House of Representatives has passed another bill that would suspend some environmental laws so that more logging can occur in federal forests. Similar to one passed in the House in 2013, it would enhance fire prevention and restoration, according to the proponents of the legislation which has three supporters in the Senate who introduced it there.

Below are excerpts from an Op-Ed in the New York Times about this effort which failed two years ago.

…Just as they did in 2013, supporters of this legislation are using the public’s fear of forest fires to advance their agenda. They argue that overgrown and “unhealthy” forests raise the risk of wildfires, and that the government has been hampered by litigation and environmental reviews from allowing timber companies to thin forests to reduce the risk of fire.

The legislation is rooted in falsehoods and misconceptions.

Some of the bill’s supporters claim that environmental laws regulating commercial logging have led to more intense fires. But, as we saw in the 2013 fire near Yosemite, known as the Rim Fire and one of the largest in California history, commercial logging and the clear-cutting of forests do not reduce fire intensity.

In the case of the Rim Fire, our research found that protected forest areas with no history of logging burned least intensely. There was a similar pattern in other large fires in recent years. Logging removes the mature, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees. The small trees planted in their place and the debris left behind by loggers act as kindling; in effect, the logged areas become combustible tree plantations that are poor wildlife habitat.

The bill’s supporters also argue that increasing logging and clear-cutting will benefit wildlife. But decades of forest ecology research strongly link the logging of both unburned and burned forests to the declines of numerous wildlife species, most notably the imperiled spotted owl.

Recognizing these findings, some 250 scientists sent a letter to Congress in 2013 opposing a similar version of the current legislation. They predicted, correctly, that the Rim Fire would actually benefit many wildlife species and rejuvenate the forest ecosystem, provided that the burned expanses were not then cleared by loggers…

The bill is titled, H.R.2647 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The status of it can be followed at Congress.gov. As this is written, it has passed the House and now is before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The Op-Ed was written by Chad T. Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project, and Dominick A. DellaSala, the chief scientist at the Geos Institute. They are the editors of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.”

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Senator advocates additional consultation prior to prescribed fires

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after the prescribed fire crossed Highway 385 and escaped. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for  Natural Resources and Environment.

Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.

In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”

The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.

The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.

And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.

These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.

And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.

I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.

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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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