The Guardian writes about budget cuts and the Whitewater-Baldy fire

Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 28, 2012
Mt. Taylor Hot Shots burning out on the Whitewater-Baldy fire along Forest Road 141, May 28, 2012. USFS photo by Steven Meister, Mt. Taylor Hot Shots.

The Guardian is a newspaper based in the United Kingdom, but they also have a substantial presence in the United States. One of their Washington D.C. based reporters, Suzanne Goldenberg, published two articles today about wildfires in the U.S., and specifically the Whitewater-Baldy fire, which at over 216,000 acres has blasted through the record set last year by the Las Conchas fire for the largest in the recorded history of New Mexico. Ms. Goldenberg’s articles are well-researched and written, and are worth reading, in spite of one particular quote. She obviously talked with actual firefighters on the ground, as well as some folks that you will recognize that are sitting comfortably hundreds of miles away from the fire.

The first article concentrates on the declining budgets of the land management agencies that are involved with fire management. The second covers the Whitewater-Baldy fire, mega-fires, and stories from locals and firefighters, including the first firefighters to rappel into the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the first article:

Fire experts are warning that $512m in congressional budget cuts could leave communities dangerously exposed in an early and active fire season.

Such warnings have sharpened with the early onset of this year’s fire season, and the record-setting outbreak in New Mexico.

Experts fear the shortfall will leave fire crews scrambling for resources, and force government agencies to dip into other non-fire budgets to cover the gap.

“A person has to wonder. Is this going to be the new norm – frequent record-setting fires, while the number of federal firefighters and air tankers continue to shrink?” wrote Bill Gabbert, a former fire management officer in the Black Hills of South Dakota who now runs the blog wildfiretoday.com.

A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.

It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Join Ms. Goldenberg from the Guardian and myself on June 4 when we co-host a live web chat about wildfires. More information can be found HERE.

Proposed federal wildfire budget contains mostly cuts, with some increases

President Obama has released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. At this point it is merely a suggestion until Congress passes appropriation or spending cap bills.

The budget fully funds the 10-year average cost of wildland fire suppression operations, but there is a reduction in the funding of the treatment of hazardous fuels — by 24% in the Department of Agriculture and by 21% in the Department of Interior.

The numbers in the table below are in millions, and represent the proposed wildfire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies within the Department of Interior.

2012 2013 Change
USFS Preparedness 1,004 1,001 -3
USFS Suppression 853 931 +78
USFS Hazardous Fuels 317 242 -75
USDA State & Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants 99 84 -15
DOI Preparedness 277 280 +3
DOI Suppression 81 277 +196
DOI Hazardous Fuels 183 145 -38
DOI Rural Fire Assistance (was $7 million in 2011) 0 0 0

In the Department of Interior’s justification for the 21% reduction in the hazardous fuels budget, they invoked the name of a U.S. Forest Service researcher, Jack Coehn, who has studied the wildland urban interface:

The Wildland Fire Management account in DOI supports wildland fire preparedness, suppression, rehabilitation, and hazardous fuels reduction activities.  When targeted properly, hazardous fuels reduction activities (e.g., removing brush and small trees in strategic locations) can reduce impacts from wildfires, including threats to public safety, suppression costs, and damage to natural and cultural resources.
DOI and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have agreed on several actions to reduce impacts from wildfires, such as:  1) prioritizing fuels treatments that have been identified as key components of Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are cost effective; and 2) expanding wildland fire use as a means of treating fuels.
Although funding for hazardous fuels treatments has quadrupled since 2000, the previous policy of treatingthe greatest number of acres possible has led to a patchwork of hazardous fuels treatment that has not been as focused as it could have been on reducing risks in the WUI.  As suggested by Forest Service scientists, extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change whether or not homes in the WUI catch on fire.  However, when there is a clear priority of treating acres within the WUI, hazardous fuels treatments can be more effective in reducing risk.
1,2 In 2013, the Forest Service and DOI will target fuels management activities to mitigate hazards and enhance the ability to control fires in WUI.  The agencies will focus funding for hazardous fuels treatments in communities that are on track to meet Firewise standards and have identified acres to be treated in Community Wildfire Protection Plans (or the equivalent) and have made an investment in implementing local solutions to protect against wildland fire.
Citations
1  Cohen, Jack D.,  Wildland-Urban Fire  – A different approach, USDA Forest Service, unpublished research synthesis, Rocky Mountain Research Station, http://www.firewise.org/resources/files/WUI_HIR/Wildlandurbanfire-approach.pdf.
2  Cohen, Jack D.,  Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes:  Where and How Much?, USDA Forest Service Gen.Tech.Rep. PSW-GTR-173 (1999), http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_1999_cohen_j001.pdf.

The Department of Agriculture explained their reduction in the U.S. Forest Service’s hazardous fuels budget, saying that “though the majority of the inexpensive locations have now been treated to reduce hazardous fuels,  FS is also furthering its efforts to focus its hazardous fuels treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface in areas that are identified in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are highest priority.”

What is behind the “Cohesive Strategy”?

The announcement last week that the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC), at their March 16-17 meeting agreed to establish a blueprint for a “Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy” made us curious for more details. The announcement was rather vague, provided little real information about the initiative, and was easily confused with the “10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan” developed in 2002.

It turns out that the federal land management agencies were required to develop the Cohesive Strategy by the 2009 FLAME Act, with a deadline of October 30, 2010. The FLAME Act was primarily known for setting up a procedure for funding the costs of large catastrophic-type fires while also serving as a reserve when funds available in the regular suppression account are exhausted.

HSToday has more information:

The Flame Act of 2009 requires the Forest Service and Department of Interior to submit to Congress a report that contains a cohesive wildfire management strategy consistent with recommendations in recent General Accountability Office (GAO) reports regarding management strategies. Following its formal approval by the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Interior by October 2010, the Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy is to be revised at least once during each five year period to address any changes with respect to landscape, vegetation, climate, and weather conditions.

According to the legislation the Cohesive Strategy is required to provide for the identification of the most cost effective means for allocating fire management budget resources. This includes the reinvestment in non-fire programs by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, employing the appropriate management response to wildfire, assessing the level of risk to communities, allocation of hazardous fuels reduction funds based on the priority of hazardous fuels reduction projects, and assessing the impacts of climate change on the frequency and impact of wildfire.

In addition, the Congressional requirements hold that the strategy meet GAO standards for addressing cost effectiveness of suppression and mitigation, the efficiency of treatments for fuels and Fire Adapted Communities and establishment of meaningful performance measures.

Firefighter pay and liability legislation making slow progress

The proposed legislation that would increase the pay and the professional liability for some federal firefighters is still waiting for action in several House of Representatives subcommittees. The bill is named the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, H.R. 4488, and is being pushed by Casey Judd and the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. Wildfire Today has covered it at length and also hosted a live discussion about the bill.

The Press Enterprise, which frequently does a great job covering wildland fire issues, has an article about the bill. Here is an excerpt.

By BEN GOAD and DUG BEGLEY
The Press-Enterprise

Better pay and benefits and increased legal protection for the nation’s federal firefighters are needed to help reign in the increasing costs of battling wildfires across the country, say proponents of a bill making its way through Congress.

Compensating firefighters for all the time they spend at fire scenes and extending year-round health benefits to part-timers would help curb defections from the agency, they say. By strengthening its own ranks, the bill’s supporters say, the Forest Service would have to rely less on costly assistance from local and state fire departments.

Additionally, the legislation seeks to recognize the dangerous nature of firefighters’ work by changing their titles from “forestry technician” or “range technician” to “wildland firefighter.” It also would raise the mandatory retirement age from 57 to 65 in an effort to keep more veterans within the agency.

“If we can retain some of the younger folks that have been hopping ship, and we can keep some of that brain trust around for a few more years, we have a better opportunity to fill in the missing gaps of those federal resources,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters nationwide.

In 2008, there were more then 2,000 federal firefighters in Southern California, according to a U.S. Forest Service report. Local residents said a strong fire protection system is critical, and that includes having veteran firefighters ready to battle blazes on the vast swaths of federal land in the Inland area.

The pay changes would begin in a trial program expected to cost about $25 million over three years. Based on the trial, officials would assess whether it saves money; the hope is that the extra pay and benefit costs would be more than offset by savings related to the reduced dependence on other fire agencies, supporters said.

Outside agencies have negotiated lucrative contracts to assist the Forest Service firefighters on federal land, Judd said. The contracts often include administrative fees and the cost of housing contract firefighters in hotels, while Forest Service crews sleep in tents in makeshift fire camps, he said.

Federal firefighting costs have risen steadily in recent years, now totaling about $1.5 billion annually. In 2008, the government had to transfer $260 million from other accounts to cover firefighting. Officials expect firefighting to consumer more than half of the Forest Service’s discretionary budget by fiscal year 2011-12.

Introduced in January, the pay and benefits bill now sits before several House subcommittees, and it remains unclear how soon it might move forward. Judd spent much of the past week in Washington to drum up support and identify senators willing to take up the cause.

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said officials in Washington are assessing the legislation and have yet to take a position.

Illinois prescribed burn manager certification

In 2007 the state of Illinois passed a law, Public Act 95-0108, that established some requirements related to conducting prescribed fires. Some of the key points included in the legislation include:

  • A “certified burn manager” must be on site.
  • A written prescription for the project must be approved by a “certified burn manager”.

Prescribed fire is a serious business and needs to be conducted by highly skilled and experienced professionals. But this is the first we have heard of a state passing a law requiring that a person be certified as a “burn manager” under specific requirements written by the state. Are there other states with similar laws?

After the law was passed in 2007 the state’s Department of Natural Resources established the requirements to become certified. They include:

  • Training: Basic ICS, basic wildland firefighter training (S-130, S-190), and a “specialized Illinois Prescribed Burning Manager Course”.
  • Participate in five burns.
  • Complete two burns as an apprentice prescribed burn manager.
  • Submit a written application with a $50 fee.

These are very minimal training requirements.

And, there is this:

Persons who have received the certification as a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 1 or Type 2, known as RXB1 or RXB2 respectively, under the NIIMS Wildland Fire Qualification System, can receive an Illinois Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Certificate by submitting an Application, proof of the RXB1 or RXB2 certification and the $50 fee.

There is also a grandfather clause that makes it easier for someone to become certified that has been conducting prescribed fires for a while.

I wonder if federal employees conducting burns on federal lands will have to apply and pay the $50 fee.

Below are the key sections of the law that was passed in 2007:

Continue reading “Illinois prescribed burn manager certification”

Live discussion, firefighter pay and liability legislation

As planned, we held a live discussion on January 28 about the new wildland firefighter pay and liability legislation that was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the “National Infrastructure Improvement and Cost Containment Act”, H.R. 4488. The bill would affect the pay, retirement age, and fireline liability of federal wildland firefighters. The full text of the bill is HERE. We summarized it and offered some commentary HERE.

Our featured panelist was Casey Judd, the Business Manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association who played a major role in crafting the bill and getting it introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. Thanks to Casey and everyone else who participated.

The discussion is archived Here.