Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.

Jon Stewart returns to Daily Show to shame Congress about health care for 9/11 responders


Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart shares his attempts to interview senators about the renewal of the Zadroga Act, which provides health care to 9/11 first responders.

One organization’s plea to fix the wildfire funding problem

It is incredible that Congress has failed to adequately fund the suppression of wildfires, an issue they have ignored for years and has broad multi-party support.

Western Priorities posted this video today with the following description:

The U.S. Forest Service now spends more than half of its budget fighting wildfires. Unlike other natural disasters, Congress does not provide separate funding for the largest fires, forcing the Forest Service to delay or abandon forest management that could reduce or prevent fires in the future.

This cycle of neglect must stop now. We call on leaders in the House and Senate to pass a wildfire funding fix as part of the omnibus budget negotiations this month, so wildfire funding is secure for the 2016 fire season.

Senate committee to seek input about wildfire funding from animal and water organizations

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. ET, November 5 to hear expert testimony about the impact of the federal wildfire budget on natural resources. The list of people who will provide advice to the committee primarily includes individuals from organizations involved with animals and water.

  • Dan Dessecker, Director of Conservation Policy, Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society, Rice Lake, Wis.
  • William R. Dougan, National President, National Federation of Federal Employees, Washington, D.C.
  • Ken Stewart, Chair, Board of Trustees, American Forest Foundation, Marietta, Ga.
  • Chris Treese, Manager, External Affairs Department, Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District), Glenwood Springs, Colo.
  • Chris Wood, President & CEO, Trout Unlimited, Arlington, Va.

The hearing will take place in room 328A in the Russell Senate Office Building in D.C. It will be televised; more information is available at the committee’s web site.

Effects of increasing fire suppression costs on USFS programs

Wildfire costs 1995-2025The U.S. Forest Service has released a report that addresses the effects of the rapidly increasing costs of suppressing wildfires. Below is an excerpt:

…This report documents the growth over the past 20 years of the portion of the Forest Service’s budget that is dedicated to fire, and the debilitating impact those rising costs are having on the recreation, restoration, planning, and other activities of the Forest Service.

In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget—this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire.

Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel. Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent, equating to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels. That means that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs.

As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.

The depletion of non-fire programs to pay for the ever-increasing costs of fire has real implications, not only for the Forest Service’s restoration work that would help prevent catastrophic fires, but also for the protection of watersheds and cultural resources, upkeep of programs and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth in rural communities, and support for the range of multiple uses, benefits and ecosystem services, as well as research, technical assistance, and other programs that deliver value to the American public…

Legislation that would pay for wildfire suppression like other natural disasters are funded has been talked about in Washington for years but Congress has not been motivated to address the issue.

USFS appropriations fire FY 1995
USFS appropriations in FY 1995
USFS appropriations fireFY 2015
USFS appropriations in FY 2015

(The graphics are from the USFS report.)

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