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.)

Two bills introduced in Congress that could affect wildland firefighters

Washington DC mall capitol
Washington, DC, December 13, 2015.

I have to admit that I have become a bit cynical about firefighter legislation. We dutifully report when a bill is introduced that specifically affects wildland firefighters, but they almost never progress beyond the committee stage. A person has to wonder why these bills are drafted if they stand so little chance of seeing the light of day. Is it because Congress is so dysfunctional that very few bills get passed at all unless they are absolutely critical to keeping the doors of government open? Or, do politicians simply want to get their name out there hoping voters will remember it the next time they are up for reelection? Maybe this year with both houses and the Presidency controlled by one party more can get done (he thought very optimistically).

Having said that, below we have information about two bills that were introduced in the Senate on April 26. They are both cosponsored by Senators Steve Daines (D-MT) and Maria Cantwell (R-WA). A handful of other Senators have said they intend to sign on as cosponsors.

S.949 – Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act

It would require the Director of the Office of Personnel Management to create a classification that more accurately reflects the role of wildland firefighters in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Their official title would become “Wildland Firefighter”. Employees currently employed, many of them with the title “Forestry Technician”, would have the choice of retaining their previous job series or moving to the new Wildland Firefighter series.

In a press release, the two Senators wrote:

Providing wildland firefighters with the proper title will improve recruitment efforts and morale and also give due recognition to those brave individuals who risk their lives to protect others’ and their property.

Text of the bill as of April 26, 2017. Track the progress of the bill.

S.950 – Wildland Firefighter Fairness Act

This bill has a number of provisions, some of which have been proposed before in various forms:

  • A pilot program would authorize the department Secretaries to allow seasonal employees to work beyond their 1,040-hour per year limit “in a given year if the covered Secretary determines the expansion to be necessary to stage fire crews earlier or later in a year to accommodate longer fire seasons.”
  • The incident qualification systems of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would be merged into one, and no agency would be allowed to require additional competencies to become qualified for a position.
  • It would allow a firefighter who was injured and disabled on the job to retain the 20-year firefighter retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire position, rather than converting to the 30-year retirement program of ordinary federal employees. It would also allow the injured firefighter’s history of overtime pay to be considered as income for purposes of calculating worker’s compensation disability benefits.

In our April 20 interview with Dan Buckley, the National Fire Director for the National Park Service, he talked about the need for extending the terms of seasonal firefighters, the first item listed in the description of the above bill. That topic begins at 11:49 in the video.

Text of the bill as of April 26, 2017. Track the progress.

The legislation will be considered by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A source in D.C. who is not authorized to speak publically on this subject told me that the plan is to “staple” these two bills to others related to firefighting, such as the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017 introduced in February (which would include wildland firefighters) and the reauthorization of the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs. The strategy is that if these (hopefully) non-controversial bills are stapled together they could be passed in the Senate with very little debate and a quick unanimous vote — perhaps two to three months from now.

One hurdle to overcome is the fact that little or no action can occur legislatively until the Administration first says yay or nay. And the politically appointed positions that would review these proposed bills are still vacant.

Now what?

If wildland firefighters have an opinion about this introduced legislation, they should contact their Senators and Representative.

Senator urges President to reverse funding cut for fighting wildfires

wildfire flamesOn Thursday, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) sent a letter to President Trump calling for the use of science-based approaches to restore forest health and for a reversal of the $600 million cut to firefighting proposed in the President’s budget.

In the letter, Senator Cantwell argued that the government’s approach to managing wildfires is inadequate in the new era of intense wildfires we now face. Wildfires have already burned 2.2 million acres this year. This level of activity is 400 percent above normal, and the science tells us this trend will continue.

The Senator wrote, “Wildfires are serious business in the West and, increasingly, throughout our nation. I am writing to implore you to implement policies based on science to govern our country’s response to these potentially deadly blazes and to grow the economy of rural areas.”

Cantwell explained that underfunding the Federal wildland fire program will almost certainly force agencies to restart the practice of transferring funding from non-fire accounts to pay for the cost of managing fires. These transfers impose additional costs to companies due to delayed or cancelled projects and harm local communities that depend on National Forests operating efficiently. Cantwell called on President Trump to work with the appropriate Congressional committees to implement a permanent fire-budgeting fix this year.

Legislation introduced to establish a national firefighter cancer registry

A bipartisan group of 76 Congressional Representatives have signed on as sponsors for legislation that would establish a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with this deadly disease. The bill is titled Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017.

Most firefighters know others in their profession who have suffered from and in some cases died of various forms of cancer.

The British Columbia government recognizes at least nine “presumptive cancers” among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma.

According to Congressmen Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Chris Collins of New York:

…The creation of this registry would enable researchers to study the relationship between firefighters’ exposure to dangerous fumes and harmful toxins and the increased risk for several major cancers. In the future, this information could also allow for better protective equipment and prevention techniques to be developed.

“Public servants like our firefighters put their lives on the line every day for us,” said Congressman Chris Collins. “Unfortunately, firefighters see a higher rate of cancer than the rest of the public. This legislation will provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the tools they need to improve their data collection capabilities on volunteer, paid-on-call, and career firefighters. We hope that by creating a voluntary ‘Firefighter Registry’ that includes the many variables that occur over a firefighter’s career, the CDC will be able to better study this deadly trend. In the future, this information can be used to provide better safeguards and protocols for these brave men and women.”

Legislation proposes to allow firefighters disabled on the job to retain 20-year retirement in non-fire position

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on December 9, 2016.

legislationA Senator in Montana has introduced legislation that would allow a federal wildland firefighter who was injured and disabled on the job to retain the 20-year firefighter retirement track if they return to work in a non-fire position, rather than converting to the 30-year retirement program of ordinary federal employees.

U.S. Senator Steve Daines’ legislation would also allow the injured firefighter’s history of overtime pay to be considered as income for purposes of calculating worker’s compensation disability benefits.

Govtrack.us estimates that the bill has a 1 percent chance of being enacted, so it will take some serious grass roots efforts to ensure that it passes.

Senator Daines’ website has a page devoted to the legislation which has opinions about the bill from two firefighters, as well as Vicki Minor of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

The bill is titled “S. 3544 — 114th Congress: Wildland Firefighter Retirement and Disability Compensation Benefits Act of 2016”. It can be tracked at Congress.gov.

House of Representatives adjourns without taking action on fire funding bill

Myrtle Fire
Firefighters conduct a burnout on the Myrtle Fire along Song Dog Road, June 22, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. House of Representatives shut down for the rest of the year today without taking action on a bill that would have improved the way wildfires on federal land are funded.

Below is an article from the National Association of State Foresters:

****

December 9, 2016 (Arlington, Va.) — With the bipartisan energy bill now stalled in Congress, time has run out for a permanent and comprehensive fire funding solution to be enacted this year. A fire funding fix was included in the most final drafts of the energy bill, but the House of Representatives concluded its business for the year without acting on the bill.

The Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus, a diverse set of international, national, tribal, and local organizations interested in sustainable land management, strongly supported a fire funding fix and hoped to see it passed through this Congress. Last month, [129] groups signed a letter asking House and Senate leaders to ensure a comprehensive fire funding solution.

“Congress let an incredible opportunity to fix the fire funding problem slip through its fingers by not acting on the energy bill this year,” said Cecilia Clavet of The Nature Conservancy, on behalf of the Fire Suppression Funding Solutions Partner Caucus. “The lack of a funding solution will continue the negative effects to all other programs funded through the Interior appropriations bill. We are indebted to all the members of the House and Senate who supported a fire funding fix, and are especially grateful for the efforts and commitment of Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell. In getting us closer this year, we hope we can get to a final point of success in the next Congress.”

“This problem of rising suppression costs stripping resources from non-fire programs is not going away, and we are eager to continue efforts to solve this problem in the next Congress,” concluded Clavet. “The incredibly broad spectrum of groups supporting this legislation clearly demonstrates this is not a partisan issue, but one that affects the health of people, water, and wildlife.”

“The National Association of State Foresters is disappointed that Congress missed an opportunity to address wildfire funding challenges this year. However, we recognize that there is more bipartisan support than ever before for a resolution. In order to conserve, protect and enhance America’s forests, leaders in Congress must address this challenge before the spring wildfire season begins,” said Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester and President of the National Association of State Foresters.

“For almost a decade, a diverse coalition has advocated for reform in the way wildfire suppression is paid for, citing the serious damage to natural resource programs, many of which, if adequately funded, would reduce the catastrophic impacts of such fires,” said James L Caswell, Chairman of the Board at the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “It is astounding that over this time Congress was not able to find a solution, despite these best efforts. As a result, America’s rural communities continue to be threatened by the failure of Congress to come to agreement. As we look to the new year, we hope the 115th Congress will recognize that solving this problem will protect lives, help to restore forests, increase employment in forest dependent and adjacent communities, and take the next step to enactment. We need to get this fixed!”