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.


Bill approved by House includes funding for wildland fire

Dollar Sign(Originally published December 12, 2014; updated December 13, 2014)

On December 11 the House of Representatives passed a consolidated federal appropriations bill that if also passed by the Senate and signed by the President in its present form would fund most of the government for the remainder of this fiscal year that ends September 30, 2015.

The bill provides $3.53 billion for Interior Department and Forest Service wildland fire management activities, which is $223 million above the FY 2014 funding amount, meeting the 10‐year average.

It includes $65 million for “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet” which “shall be suitable for contractor operation”. We have a call in to the Forest Service to find out what this is for exactly. It appears to be over and above what is normally appropriated for the contracting of air tankers, and may have something to do with management and retrofitting of the C-130Hs the agency is in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard. But those aircraft are not expected to be received until FY 2018. We would be surprised if the USFS plans to purchase additional air tankers. If our call to the USFS is returned, we will post an update here.

(UPDATE at 9:12 a.m. MST, December 13, 2014: Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson with the USFS, told us that their budget staff will not disclose how that $65 million will be spent until after Congress and the President pass and sign the bill.)

(UPDATE December 16, 2014: An article at Fire Aviation explores in much more detail how the Forest Service may spend the $65 million allocated for air tankers.)

Below are excerpts from the bill; the full text of which can be accessed here.

Forest Service
Page 745
For necessary expenses for forest fire presuppression
activities on National Forest System lands, for emergency
fire suppression on or adjacent to such lands or other
lands under fire protection agreement, hazardous fuels
management on or adjacent to such lands, emergency re-
habilitation of burned-over National Forest System lands
and water, and for State and volunteer fire assistance,
$2,333,298,000, to remain available until expended: …
Page 746
…Provided further, That of the
funds provided, $361,749,000 is for hazardous fuels man-
agement activities, $19,795,000 is for research activities
and to make competitive research grants pursuant to the
Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research
Act, (16 U.S.C. 1641 et seq.), $78,000,000 is for State
fire assistance, and $13,000,000 is for volunteer fire as-
sistance under section 10 of the Cooperative Forestry As-
sistance Act of 1978 (16 U.S.C. 2106): …
Page 747
…Provided further, That, of the funds provided, $65,000,000
shall be available for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for
the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting
mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such air-
craft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the
terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National
forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the
Forest Service:
Page 749
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of Agriculture and as a reserve
fund for suppression and Federal emergency response
activities, $303,060,000, to remain available until expended:
Provided, That such amounts are only available for trans-
fer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account following
a declaration by the Secretary in accordance with section
502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C. 1748a)…

Department of the Interior
Page 706-707
For necessary expenses for fire preparedness, fire
suppression operations, fire science and research, emer-
gency rehabilitation, hazardous fuels management activi-
ties, and rural fire assistance by the Department of the
Interior, $804,779,000, to remain available until
expended, of which not to exceed $6,127,000 shall be for
the renovation or construction of fire facilities: Provided,
That such funds are also available for repayment of
advances to other appropriation accounts from which funds
were previously transferred for such purposes: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $164,000,000 is for
hazardous fuels management activities, of which
$10,000,000 is for resilient landscapes activities: Provided
further, That of the funds provided $18,035,000 is for
burned area rehabilitation:..
Page 710
For necessary expenses for large fire suppression
operations of the Department of the Interior and as a
reserve fund for suppression and Federal emergency
response activities, $92,000,000, to remain available until
expended: Provided, That such amounts are only available
for transfer to the ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’ account
following a declaration by the Secretary in accordance
with section 502 of the FLAME Act of 2009 (43 U.S.C.


Bill introduced that would strip firearms from some federal agencies

Dianna McKinley

Dianna McKinley and her K9 partner Sabre, Flathead National Forest. USFS photo. (More information about an award earned by Ms. McKinley.)

A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would allow firearms to be owned by only a few non-military agencies. H.R.4934, the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act, would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing or using a firearm. The only exemptions from the act would be the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, the military departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Capitol Police, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Most, if not all, of the federal land management agencies have law enforcement officers and special agents that have access to weapons.

No action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced on June 23, 2014, so it has a very long road ahead before it becomes law. And the do-nothing Congress rarely passes legislation, so don’t hold your breath on this being voted on in the House and Senate any time soon. But it does have 31 cosponsors after being introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart from Utah.

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


Wildfire briefing, August 24, 2014

U.S. Forest Service on hauling firefighters in cargo trucks

We asked the USFS to comment on the California National Guard’s practice of hauling their firefighting troops in the back of cargo trucks, which we wrote about earlier.

National Guard troops In cargo truck

National Guard troops in cargo truck in Yreka, California, August 14, 2014.

A spokesperson for the agency, Mike Ferris, said:

This is not an activity that the Forest Service practices. The California National Guard was deployed on three different incidents in Northern California: Little Deer; Log; and Lodge fires. National Guard resources were ordered and managed by Cal Fire.

When we asked if the USFS was concerned about firefighters being injured if there was a truck rollover or another type of accident, Mr. Ferris said:

Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management. Safety Officers at large fire incidents identify and address known risks and implement mitigations consistent with incident objectives.

We offered the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, but they declined.

Florida motorists warned about wildfire smoke

Smoke from a wildfire has prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to issue a warning for motorists in St. Johns County. The agency issued a Travel Advisory for travel on Interstate 95 south of International Golf Parkway.

Smoke from a wildfire nearby might affect roadways. Visibility may deteriorate quickly due to smoke or fog-type conditions especially during the evening and early morning hours. Motorists should reduce their speed as necessary to avoid a collision, and use their low-beam headlights in order to adapt to the changing weather conditions, according to the highway patrol.

Efforts continue to pass wildfire funding bill

In spite of several failed attempts over the last several months to pass a bill that would fully fund wildfires in a manner similar to other natural disasters, some senators and representatives in Idaho and Oregon have not given up.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Spokesman-Review:

…The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including [Idaho Senator Jim] Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” [Idaho Senator Mike Crapo’s press secretary Lindsay] Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget-neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.”

The Onion’s parody kills off Smokey Bear

The Onion, a parody website, is “reporting” that the “U.S. Forest Service Kills Off Smokey Bear To Get People Serious About Fire Safety”. The images in the video of the iconic bear being killed may not be suitable for children.


Wildfire briefing, July 29, 2014

Congress fails to act on wildfire funding

Dollar SignCongress still has not taken action on the President’s request for $615 million to be put into a fund to pay for wildfires. Having this money up front could prevent the federal land management agencies from being forced to rob money from unrelated accounts in order to pay firefighting bills. And with their 5-week vacation beginning on July 31, it is unlikely our elected representatives will do anything before the second week in September at the earliest.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said, “The [land management] agencies have a big pile of money already. I don’t think there’s an urgency on the money part.”

Looking for information about Washington fires

Greg Baron wrote an interesting piece for Emergency Management about trying to find information for a client who wanted to provide assistance with reconstruction related to the wildfires in Washington. After searching online, here is a portion of his findings. The rest are here:

1. There is no JIC [Joint Information Center]. The Washington fires are involving at least two counties (Okanagan and Chelan) and numerous small towns including Pateros, Carlton, Brewster, Twisp and Winthrop. But there is no one single source of up-to-date and reliable information. Complicating that is there are a couple of different major fires with different names: Carleton Complex (or Carlton Complex as there is no consistency) and Chiwaukum Complex (try and remember that name, let alone how to spell it).

2. The best source was this blog site: http://carltoncomplex.blogspot.com/. But there are some issues: Who is behind it? The information only said that it is published by “Carlton Complex.” How can we know if it is official (as it says) or reliable if you don’t identify yourself? The site itself is very nicely presented and of the many I looked at, easiest to find what you are looking for (except if you are looking to offer services). I really like the listing of other sources with links, the Twitter feed on the front page, the integration with other social media, the map, the rolling updates from news media — there’s lots to like here. I also really like that you can sign up for email updates; I just signed up so can’t say how they are doing with that but I think this is something that is often missed. I also really like the Spanish language emphasis, which is evident in several sites — a reality given the percentage of Hispanic population in this area.

3. InciWeb doesn’t cut it. InciWeb provided by the U.S. Forest Service has been a primary Web tool for the agency for fires, but I always hear of difficulties. I suspect the blog referred to above is run by the U.S. Forest Service and may be to replace InciWeb as there is counter-linking.

Cost of Washington wildfires

Officials in Washington estimate that the cost of suppressing wildfires in their state so far this year as been $50 million. About half of that went to the Carlton Complex fire, at a cost of over $23 million. These figures do not include loss of property or damage to infrastructure. The Carlton Complex burned about 300 homes and heavily damaged the power grid in the Methow Valley.

Public service announcements featuring Disney’s movie, Planes: Fire & Rescue

Planes and Smokey

Disney is joining the Ad Council, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters  to launch a new series of public service advertisements (PSAs) featuring scenes and characters from Disneytoon Studios’ animated film Planes: Fire & Rescue. The PSAs are an extension of the Wildfire Prevention PSA campaign, featuring the iconic Smokey Bear, who celebrates his 70th birthday this summer. For more information on Smokey Bear and the Wildfire Prevention campaign visit: www.SmokeyBear.com.


Senate hearing on USFS fire funding, Wednesday morning

Tuesday, July 15 at 10:30 ET the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the Administration’s budget request of $4.8 billion for the U.S. Forest Service in fiscal year 2015, which begins October 1, 2014. One of the prime topics of discussion is expected to be the President’s proposal to fund some wildfires in a manner similar to other natural disasters, keeping the funds separate from non-fire activities. This method of funding is supported by western lawmakers and the Western Governors’ Association, but there is opposition from some Republican politicians.

Several competing bills have been introduced that have similar provisions. They would all protect the US. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior routine budget items from being pillaged in order to pay firefighting bills. Senator John McCain last week introduced another bill with many of the same goals, but in addition his legislation would encourage timber harvesting and thinning, while streamlining some of the environmental restrictions that might otherwise slow down the projects.

As usual in hearings like this, it is likely that the topic of federal air tankers will be discussed.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing will be web-cast live at 10:30 ET, Tuesday. (the link was corrected)