Two bills introduced in Congress that could affect wildland firefighters

Washington DC mall capitol
Washington, DC, December 13, 2015.

I have to admit that I have become a bit cynical about firefighter legislation. We dutifully report when a bill is introduced that specifically affects wildland firefighters, but they almost never progress beyond the committee stage. A person has to wonder why these bills are drafted if they stand so little chance of seeing the light of day. Is it because Congress is so dysfunctional that very few bills get passed at all unless they are absolutely critical to keeping the doors of government open? Or, do politicians simply want to get their name out there hoping voters will remember it the next time they are up for reelection? Maybe this year with both houses and the Presidency controlled by one party more can get done (he thought very optimistically).

Having said that, below we have information about two bills that were introduced in the Senate on April 26. They are both cosponsored by Senators Steve Daines (D-MT) and Maria Cantwell (R-WA). A handful of other Senators have said they intend to sign on as cosponsors.

S.949 – Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act

It would require the Director of the Office of Personnel Management to create a classification that more accurately reflects the role of wildland firefighters in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Their official title would become “Wildland Firefighter”. Employees currently employed, many of them with the title “Forestry Technician”, would have the choice of retaining their previous job series or moving to the new Wildland Firefighter series.

In a press release, the two Senators wrote:

Providing wildland firefighters with the proper title will improve recruitment efforts and morale and also give due recognition to those brave individuals who risk their lives to protect others’ and their property.

Text of the bill as of April 26, 2017. Track the progress of the bill.

S.950 – Wildland Firefighter Fairness Act

This bill has a number of provisions, some of which have been proposed before in various forms:

  • A pilot program would authorize the department Secretaries to allow seasonal employees to work beyond their 1,040-hour per year limit “in a given year if the covered Secretary determines the expansion to be necessary to stage fire crews earlier or later in a year to accommodate longer fire seasons.”
  • The incident qualification systems of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would be merged into one, and no agency would be allowed to require additional competencies to become qualified for a position.
  • It would allow a firefighter who was injured and disabled on the job to retain the 20-year firefighter retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire position, rather than converting to the 30-year retirement program of ordinary federal employees. It would also allow the injured firefighter’s history of overtime pay to be considered as income for purposes of calculating worker’s compensation disability benefits.

In our April 20 interview with Dan Buckley, the National Fire Director for the National Park Service, he talked about the need for extending the terms of seasonal firefighters, the first item listed in the description of the above bill. That topic begins at 11:49 in the video.

Text of the bill as of April 26, 2017. Track the progress.

The legislation will be considered by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A source in D.C. who is not authorized to speak publically on this subject told me that the plan is to “staple” these two bills to others related to firefighting, such as the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017 introduced in February (which would include wildland firefighters) and the reauthorization of the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs. The strategy is that if these (hopefully) non-controversial bills are stapled together they could be passed in the Senate with very little debate and a quick unanimous vote — perhaps two to three months from now.

One hurdle to overcome is the fact that little or no action can occur legislatively until the Administration first says yay or nay. And the politically appointed positions that would review these proposed bills are still vacant.

Now what?

If wildland firefighters have an opinion about this introduced legislation, they should contact their Senators and Representative.

Senator urges President to reverse funding cut for fighting wildfires

wildfire flamesOn Thursday, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) sent a letter to President Trump calling for the use of science-based approaches to restore forest health and for a reversal of the $600 million cut to firefighting proposed in the President’s budget.

In the letter, Senator Cantwell argued that the government’s approach to managing wildfires is inadequate in the new era of intense wildfires we now face. Wildfires have already burned 2.2 million acres this year. This level of activity is 400 percent above normal, and the science tells us this trend will continue.

The Senator wrote, “Wildfires are serious business in the West and, increasingly, throughout our nation. I am writing to implore you to implement policies based on science to govern our country’s response to these potentially deadly blazes and to grow the economy of rural areas.”

Cantwell explained that underfunding the Federal wildland fire program will almost certainly force agencies to restart the practice of transferring funding from non-fire accounts to pay for the cost of managing fires. These transfers impose additional costs to companies due to delayed or cancelled projects and harm local communities that depend on National Forests operating efficiently. Cantwell called on President Trump to work with the appropriate Congressional committees to implement a permanent fire-budgeting fix this year.

Legislation introduced to establish a national firefighter cancer registry

A bipartisan group of 76 Congressional Representatives have signed on as sponsors for legislation that would establish a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with this deadly disease. The bill is titled Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017.

Most firefighters know others in their profession who have suffered from and in some cases died of various forms of cancer.

The British Columbia government recognizes at least nine “presumptive cancers” among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma.

According to Congressmen Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Chris Collins of New York:

…The creation of this registry would enable researchers to study the relationship between firefighters’ exposure to dangerous fumes and harmful toxins and the increased risk for several major cancers. In the future, this information could also allow for better protective equipment and prevention techniques to be developed.

“Public servants like our firefighters put their lives on the line every day for us,” said Congressman Chris Collins. “Unfortunately, firefighters see a higher rate of cancer than the rest of the public. This legislation will provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the tools they need to improve their data collection capabilities on volunteer, paid-on-call, and career firefighters. We hope that by creating a voluntary ‘Firefighter Registry’ that includes the many variables that occur over a firefighter’s career, the CDC will be able to better study this deadly trend. In the future, this information can be used to provide better safeguards and protocols for these brave men and women.”

Legislation proposes to allow firefighters disabled on the job to retain 20-year retirement in non-fire position

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on December 9, 2016.

legislationA Senator in Montana has introduced legislation that would allow a federal wildland firefighter who was injured and disabled on the job to retain the 20-year firefighter retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire position, rather than converting to the 30-year retirement program of ordinary federal employees.

U.S. Senator Steve Daines’ legislation would also allow the injured firefighter’s history of overtime pay to be considered as income for purposes of calculating worker’s compensation disability benefits.

Govtrack.us estimates that the bill has a 1 percent chance of being enacted, so it will take some serious grass roots efforts to ensure that it passes.

Senator Daines’ website has a page devoted to the legislation which has opinions about the bill from two firefighters, as well as Vicki Minor of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

The bill is titled “S. 3544 — 114th Congress: Wildland Firefighter Retirement and Disability Compensation Benefits Act of 2016”. It can be tracked at Congress.gov.

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.