Forest Service Chief vows to protect communities “no matter what the budget”

Tom Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 6, 2016.

Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, discussed the 2016 wildfire season in two venues recently. Earlier this month he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and on Wednesday he talked with the Associated Press while he was in Denver for a conference about forest health.

In Denver Chief Tidwell discussed the outlook for the wildfire season, funding for fire suppression, and Smokey Bear.

Here are some excerpts from the AP article, and below that we have information about the committee testimony.

The upcoming wildfire season across the U.S. isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s infernos, when a record 15,800 square miles burned, the nation’s top wildland firefighting official said Wednesday.

But parts of the nation should expect a rough season after a warm, dry winter or because of long-term drought, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Southern California, other parts of the Southwest, Alaska and Montana are all vulnerable, he said.

“So where we anticipate the severity of the fire season will not be at the same level as last year, we still expect to have some areas that will be really active,” Tidwell said.

[…]

The overall bill for wildfires, including prevention programs and the cost of putting crews, equipment and aircraft on fire lines, is consuming a growing share of the Forest Service budget. That has forced cuts in forestry research, campground and trail maintenance and other areas, Tidwell said.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pay the cost of fighting the worst fires from natural disaster funds, rather than the Forest Service budget. Tidwell said the largest 1 or 2 percent of wildfires account for about 30 percent of the costs.

Congress has not agreed to the change, but it did approve an additional $520 million for fighting fires this season, Tidwell said.

[…]

With a chuckle and a smile, Tidwell defended Smokey Bear, his agency’s memorable mascot, from allegations of making things worse by portraying fire as evil instead of part of the natural cycle that kept forests healthy. Smokey’s original message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

“Really, Smokey was just talking about those human-caused fires which actually occur at the wrong time of the year, not where the natural fire occurs,” Tidwell said. Those are the fires that the Forest Service still wants to stop, he said.

“Smokey Bear gets no blame for the situation we have today,” he said.

On April 6 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief Tidwell discussed many different USFS responsibilities. In his introductory remarks, he summarized wildland fire at 38:50 in the video. (I could not get the video to play using the Chrome browser, but it worked with Firefox. This probably has something to do with the government using Flash to serve the video, a much-hated and insecure platform.) 

The budget request also will provide for the level of fire suppression resources that are needed to be able to protect not only the national forests but to provide the support for the states and our local firefighters. We’ll have the adequate number of large air tankers this year, we’ll have the helicopters, the hot shot crews that we need to be able to continue to provide that support when we work in conjunction with our states and local fires.

Later in the hearing, at 1:07:01 in the video, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall brought up the issue of fire borrowing, scavenging money from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression when the fire funds are depleted during a busy fire season. The Senator mentioned the Chief’s boss, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Secretary apparently had said that funds would not be taken from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression.

Senator Udall:

Secretary Vilsack has been very public in his disappointment about failing to pass the disaster cap adjustment. He has stated for the record that he will not authorize transfers for fire suppression. He said that most recently at the Agriculture appropriations hearing last month. That essentially bars the normal practice of fire borrowing as you know. As I said in my opening statement I share the Secretary’s frustration that we don’t have a cap adjustment in law yet and I hope this is the year that we will be able to enact a fix for the firefighting budget. But until that happens, we must be clear. We expect the Forest Service to use all of its existing legal authority to fight catastrophic wildfires. Chief Tidwell can you assure us that when the time comes the agency will use all available tools to protect the public and the nation’s resources from wildfires.

Chief Tidwell replied:

Senator we will continue to carry out our responsibilities on the ground to be able to protect the communities no matter what the budget. I share the Secretary’s urgency and as I shared with the Chair earlier, the longer this issue goes on the less and less discretion you have to be able to solve it… We will continue to work with the committee, and I am optimistic that so far with the projections that we should be OK with the level of additional funding you have provided. But as the season progresses we definitely will have ongoing discussions about informing the Committee about where we are with the rate of expenditures so that hopefully we can avoid that situation of running out of money for fire suppression this year.

The statement about protecting communities “no matter what the budget” reminded me of an article we posted on April 25, when Jerry Williams, the former Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, in 1995 talked about can-do, make-do, and tragedy.

After the discussion of fire-borrowing, at 1:09:05 in the video Senator Udall asked about the plans for utilizing the seven HC-130H aircraft that in 2013 began the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. They will become the first government-owned/contractor-operated air tankers in the United States federal government. All of them are receiving programmed depot maintenance and will need to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to new paint. Most of them will also have the wing boxes replaced, a process that takes about 10 months and around $7 million per aircraft.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015. In 2016 it will be replaced by another HC-130H that may have the new USFS-approved paint scheme.

In the meantime, this year, like last year, there will be one HC-130H available for firefighting based at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. It will use a borrowed slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) since the Air Force, responsible for maintaining and retrofitting the seven aircraft, has not yet arranged to install the permanent retardant tanks.

Chief Tidwell told the Committee he expects the seven HC-130H air tankers to be operational on the following schedule:

2016: one
2017: two
2018: four
2019: seven, all with permanent retardant delivery systems

Washington lawmakers introduce bill to allow more prescribed fires

The bill would relax some air quality and permitting regulations so as not to impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires.

Above: a firefighter watches the progress of the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest near Hill City, South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill in the Washington legislature that would allow more prescribed fires in the central and eastern parts of the state. House Bill 2928 could reduce the number of projects that are disapproved due to air quality regulations.

The goal is to encourage forest managers to reduce the amount of fuel that would be available during a wildfire, or as the bill states, “ensure that restrictions on outdoor burning for air quality reasons do not impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires”.

If a prescribed fire were to be disapproved due to air quality concerns, the officials would first have to take into account “the likelihood and magnitude of subsequent air pollution from an unplanned and uncontrolled fire if the burn permit is refused, revoked, or postponed”.

In addition, burn permits would be issued that span multiple days for forest resiliency burning. A burn permit spanning multiple days would only be revoked or postponed midway during the duration of the permit when necessary for the safety of adjacent property or upon a determination that the burn has significantly contributed to a violation of air quality standards.

On February 16, the bill passed the House on a unanimous vote.

On February 29 at 12:30 p.m. a hearing on the bill is scheduled in the Senate Committee on Ways & Means.

Los Angeles Times op ed on reforming wildfire funding

Outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs.

Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington,  August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.

The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:

****

“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.

[…]

If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.

This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.

[…]

The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.

This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.

Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.

Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”

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.