Comprehensive fire funding fix could be passed this week

The new system is included in the proposed omnibus legislation

Above: Thomas Fire, Ventura, California, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 8:09 a.m. MDT March 22, 2018)

After years of dithering, Congress appears to be on track to finally significantly change the way wildfires are funded, no longer robbing dollars from fire prevention or totally unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. One insider in Washington calls it the long-anticipated “comprehensive funding fix”.

The changes are part of the omnibus legislation that likely will be voted on on Friday. The bill also funds most of the government, which will have to shut down Saturday if it does not pass. Of course anything could happen between now and then, but this is the closest we have been to a meaningful solution.

If passed it would begin in fiscal year 2020 and run through 2027, improving the two aspects of fire funding that have created major problems:

  1. In years when fire suppression costs are very high, it would use a budget cap adjustment to fund a new account which will receive an extra $2.3 to $3.0 billion a year. The amount will increase by $100 million each year. This should reduce the need to rob money from unrelated accounts in bad fire seasons. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are depleted.
  2. It will freeze the 10-year average computation of fire suppression costs at the 2015 level, $1.4 billion. This is even more important than the first change. Congress directs the Forest Service to fund the fire organization at the 10-year average of costs. That would be fine, except that the total budget for the FS remains the same year after year, while fire costs keep increasing. So even before the fire season starts, the agency has to take money from other accounts to give to fire management. And, this money is not later paid back, unlike the funds that are taken later in the year to pay for a bad fire season.

These TWO changes are why the insider calls this a “comprehensive funding fix”. Simply creating a new, unconnected account for emergency fire suppression would be only part of a solution.

But if the total budget for the Forest Service continues to be locked in at the same amount year after year, funding the fire organization at the 2015 10-year average is still going to be very difficult. The third part of the fire funding fix would be to stop cutting, in real dollars, the amount appropriated to the Forest Service.

Other provisions in the omnibus bill would increase the budget for the National Park Service by 8 percent and include $154 million to apply toward the $11.6 billion infrastructure repair backlog.

The legislation also reduces environmental analysis procedures on projects that treat hazardous fuels.

The press releases are flying as politicians praise, and in some cases, take partial credit for the changes in fire funding. The two Colorado Senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, are in favor of the changes:

“The pressures that wildfires have brought to the West, as well as the challenges of climate change and development, the antiquated way we pay for firefighting needed dramatic change,” Sen. Bennet (D) said in a news release. “This bipartisan fix transforms and modernizes the Forest Service’s capacity to restore forest health and mitigate and fight wildfires.”

Sen. Gardner (R) also said the funding bill will go a long way to help federal agencies tasked with fighting fires.

“Year after year, much of the West is forced to deal with horrible wildfires that burn millions of acres, and funding that should be applied to fire prevention and mitigation projects is instead spent by the Forest Service fighting these fires. Our provision will ensure the Forest Service has the necessary funding for cleanup and prevention efforts that will help reduce the amount of catastrophic wildfires the Forest Service has to fight,” Gardner said.

The Senators in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho issued similar statements.

Legislation would provide “Holy Grail” for wildland firefighters

Senate Bill 2209 would enhance situational awareness for firefighters

Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire
Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two U.S. Senators are co-sponsoring a bill that would enhance the safety and situational awareness of wildland firefighters. Senate Bill 2290 would be an important step toward what we have called the “Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety”. This concept would provide the real time location of a wildfire and the resources working on the incident. Too often fatalities have occurred when firefighters did not know where the fire was or overhead personnel were not aware of the position of firefighters who were endangered by the quickly spreading fire. Or both at the same time.

The legislation would require the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to jointly develop and operate “a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams”.

A complimentary requirement in the bill is “unmanned aircraft systems to [supply] real-time maps, detect spot fires, assess fire behavior, develop tactical and strategic firefighting plans, position fire resources, and enhance firefighter safety”.

The sponsoring Senators are a Democrat and a Republican, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO). Since the bill was introduced January 10, 2018 no further action has taken place and no additional Senators have signed on, so it appears there is not much momentum pushing it through the process.

Here are the first two paragraphs in a press release issued by Senator Gardner’s office:

Washington D.C. —U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017, a bill designed to bring firefighting agencies into the 21st century.

This bill will increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and to begin using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety.

It is nice to see that at least two Senators are thinking about firefighter safety.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

OpEd: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

Firefighting and warfighting are both expensive

Above: Whoopup Fire, Wyoming, 2011

(This was first published on Fire Aviation)

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!

Last week’s federal budget deal did not address wildland fire

The President’s recommended FY 19 budget reportedly includes a fix to funding wildfire suppression

dollar signLast week when the federal budget deal was being hurriedly thrown together as the government shutdown approached, there was an effort to include a provision to fix the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression. The legislation the President signed increased the debt limit and appropriated an additional $165 billion for the Department of Defense, but there was nothing earthshaking in the bill specifically related to wildland fire. However it included more money for most federal agencies, including the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Some of those funds may find their way into fire budgets in the next few months.

Today President Trump is releasing his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins in October. One of our sources said it includes the fire funding fix. But expecting Congress to pass a traditional year-long budget has become a quaint idea.

Senators introduce legislation that would affect wildland fire management

One proposal has a better chance of passage than the other.

USFS headquartersWe always hesitate to write about proposed legislation because it seems that about 90 percent of it never sees the light of day. And, at Wildfire Today we don’t cover politics unless it directly affects wildland fire. So with those disclaimers, here is information about two efforts that would affect federal fire management.

Two Arizona Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, filed an amendment yesterday to the Senate Budget Resolution that they claim would “require Congress to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service’s cash-strapped wildfire management account”. This is an attempt to partially solve the “fire borrowing” problem which is a ridiculous situation requiring land management agencies, in a busy fire year, to take money from non-fire programs to pay for fire suppression.

The amendment would only allow any funding for the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior if the budget included a fix for fire borrowing, a concept with some support. But it also requires the use of the 10-year average fire cost to determine the fire budget in perpetuity, and it can’t provide more than an additional $1.4 billion in a busy fire year. The latter idea is controversial and could be divisive, so it is unlikely that the party leadership or the majority of the Senate would buy off on it.

For the last two years, and especially the last two months, Senator McCain has actually lived up to his self-described “maverick” status, often breaking ranks with his party and openly criticising (or returning fire from) the President, who is also a member of his party. There is a theory that this proposed amendment is unserious, and is simply an attempt to ruffle some Republican feathers.

The other proposed legislation has some limited bipartisan support, four Democrats and two Republicans, and may have a better chance of passage. It was introduced today by Senators Cantwell, Murray, Risch, Wyden, Crapo, and Merkley. They are affectionately  calling it the “pine pilot” bill.

Their Wildland Fires Act of 2017:

  • Establishes a pilot program for ponderosa pine forests that directs the FS and DOI to treat the top 1% most-at-risk, least-controversial lands over the next 10 years by reducing wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and conducting prescribed fires outside of the WUI;
  • Authorizes the use of 10-year contracts for prescribed fire companies and of up to ten 20-year contracts for restoration projects or fuels reduction projects on Federal land;
  • Requires a cost review of every wildfire over 100,000 acres;
  • Authorizes the Secretaries to re-purpose unused wildfire suppression funds to conduct wildfire risk reduction projects; and,
  • Provides funding to communities that are at-risk to wildfires for planning and preparing for wildfires.

Pending federal appropriations bill includes increase for suppression, decrease for volunteer assistance

Opinion: How SHOULD the federal fire agencies be funded?

Above: The Washington, DC headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MDT September 8, 2017)

The wildland fire appropriations bill that is being considered in the House of Representatives does not have any earth-shaking changes but it includes slight increases for fire suppression and fuels management, while State and Volunteer Fire Assistance would be cut.

H.R. 3354 would determine the amount of funding for about a dozen agencies, most of them within the Department of the Interior — including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service,  National Park Service, and Forest Service.

Andy's Hump Fire, Idaho
Andy’s Hump Fire, Idaho. Inciweb.

It is being debated in committees and will undoubtedly change before it is approved in the House and Senate and signed by the President, but here are a few of the highlights related to wildland fire. The numbers are the appropriations for the Forest Service only.

  • The bill will again use the rolling 10-year average of fire suppression expenses as part of the computation for the new budget. Since the average went up, the bill includes a $15 million increase in suppression.
  • Hazardous fuel management increases by $3 million (less than 1 percent) to $393 million.
  • Within the Forest Service, hazardous fuel management funds will be moved from the Suppression account to the National Forest System Appropriation, as requested by the agency.
  • State Fire Assistance went down by $2 million to $76 million.
  • Volunteer Fire Assistance decreased by $1 million to $14 million.

The legislation will get rid of the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME). It was created in 2008 intended to provide dedicated funding for suppressing fires and hazardous fuel reduction treatments. The way it was managed by Congress over the years made it irrelevant and will now be collapsed into the Suppression account.

dollar signThere is still no fix for the “fire borrowing” issue that results in funds being taken from non-fire accounts when suppression expenses are exhausted. These accounts are usually reimbursed by Congress, but it can happen months later, which can cause chaos in programs unrelated to fire.

Our Opinion

Obviously the fire borrowing train wreck has to be fixed. This ridiculous situation should be a no-brainer.

Fires are getting larger, causing major disruptions in the lives of many taxpayers. Basing the funds for suppression on the 10-year average cost too often does not work.

The 10-year average of the acres burned in the U.S. to this date (September 8) is 5,515,998, while 8,036,858 acres have burned to date this year (National Interagency Fire Center, September 8, 2017). That is a 48 percent increase over the average.

Air Quality Index fire smoke
Air Quality Index at 9 a.m. PDT September 8, 2017 for areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Smoke in this case is the main culprit.

Smoke from wildfires is affecting the health of millions. Often this summer the air quality in large areas of the Northwest has been classified according to air quality monitoring stations as Unsafe for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous. A friend who has respiratory issues in South Dakota, hundreds of miles from any large fires, has been seriously affected by wildfire smoke this summer. Some families are having to take their children with asthma to hospitals when the smoke invades their community.

meeting Eagle Creek Fire
Community meeting at Hood River, Oregon for residents affected by the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, September 7, 2017. Inciweb.

More successful fire suppression would reduce the smoke impacts on millions of people.

General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.
General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. November 1988. Wikipedia.

Not all fires are aggressively fought by the federal agencies. We can debate whether that is the best way to manage forests, but even if there is no change in that policy, more can be done to keep new fires from becoming large — and we can more aggressively suppress all unwanted fires. Successful battlefield Generals, including Norman Schwarzkopf, understand the concept.

A Wikipedia article about the General describes planning in 1991 for Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq:

U.S. commanders from the beginning wanted a quick conflict characterized by decisive, overwhelming force, as opposed to the gradual escalation of U.S. involvement as had been seen in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf in particular was very adamant that many of the policies governing military operations in Vietnam, especially slow escalation of air power and troop force, not recur. His plan for direct and overwhelming force was initially criticized in Washington as uncreative.

The fighting was basically over in less than 100 hours.

The same concepts relating to air power and troop force can be applied to fighting another enemy — unwanted wildfires. A timid initial attack on a new fire can allow it to spread to the point where no suppression attempts will be successful until there are major changes in the weather, fuels, or topography.

Dr. Gabbert prescription new fires magafires prevent

Some of us remember when aggressive initial attack was the norm in the federal agencies rather than the exception. In the short run it costs more to dispatch an overwhelming force to a new fire than using a timid approach with few resources arriving in the first 10 to 30 minutes, but it can prevent later expenses of tens of millions of dollars — and also prevent hundreds of firefighters from being tied up on one fire for weeks or months, as well as the loss of private property, evacuations, smoke, and timber being destroyed.

The cost and disruption caused by evacuations from fires is rarely openly discussed, but the act of packing belongings and transporting a family to another location for multiple days can be an extreme hardship, not only because of the inconvenience, but also the cost for the evacuees, and the businesses whose customers temporarily live somewhere else or avoid the area. It would not surprise me if an aggressive attorney recruited evacuees who want to sue to recover their costs, claiming the fire could have or should have been suppressed before it grew large.

Funding the federal fire agencies and managing them so that they CAN and WILL as a matter of policy attack new fires aggressively, becomes increasingly important as firefighters are battling multiple megafires each year.

They need to have the technology that will enable them to fight their enemy more efficiently and safely. Drones can provide real time information about the behavior and location of fires. The small aircraft can also serve as radio repeaters for voice communication and location trackers for firefighting resources. These safety-related concepts can help to provide the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters.

Aerial firefighting resources, including helicopters and air tankers, are most effective when used during the first hour of a new fire. In order to have them reliably available for initial attack the U.S. Forest Service should contract for or operate 40 large or very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts. And instead of reducing the number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts from 34 to 28 as was done this year, there should be at least 45.

(Update at 10:22 p.m MDT September 8, 2017:  The USA Today has an article about the USFS budget, including quotes from the Secretary of Agriculture and … the article above.)