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

Forest Service Chief testifies before House Committee

The Administration’s budget outlook for the Forest Service, next fiscal year.

Tom Tidwell

On Wednesday Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testified before the House Committee on Appropriations’ subcommittee, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. The primary objective of the hearing was to discuss the budget for next year, Fiscal 2017. The text of the Chief’s prepared testimony is here, wherein he outlines some broad points about budget trends that the administration expects. Of course if or when Congress approves a budget the final version could be very different.

During the hearing there were naturally many questions from the representatives about the budget, but there were also discussions about grazing fees, transferring federal land to the states or other entities (spoiler alert, Chief Tidwell is opposed), initial attack of fires, the safety of using C-130 air tankers, and two representatives encouraged the Forest Service to take advantage of drone technology to provide real time intelligence about ongoing wildfires.

Below are some excerpts from Chief Tidwell’s prepared testimony about the administration’s budget proposal for FY 2017:
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Washington Governor and FS Chief discuss the firefighter fatalities

This morning at 11 a.m. PT Washington Governor Jay Inslee and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell conducted a news conference at the fire station in Chelan, Washington. They discussed the general fire situation in the Northwest, and mentioned the three USFS firefighters who were killed near Twisp, Washington the day before, on August 19.

Forest Service Chief testifies before Senate Committee

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testifies before a Senate Committee February 26, 2015

Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testified March 26 at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The primary purpose of the hearing was the Forest Service budget for Fiscal  Year 2016, but there were many questions from the Senators about other issues.

There were no earth-shaking revelations in the hearing about wildland fire, and few deeply probing questions from the Senators on the subject. Contrary to the recent annual hearings like this, there was no lengthy discussion about air tankers.

The video from the hearing is available at the Committee’s web site. The hearing begins at 12:30. I skimmed through all of it and identified sections that had some of the more interesting remarks about wildland fire.

From 1:13:15 until 1:19:30 Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon asked some fire-related questions, mostly about the fire borrowing problem.

From 2:05:15 until 2:07:19 Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell asked that Chief Tidwell work with the Department of Homeland Security to make it possible to use drones, especially on fires. This is the first I have heard that the DHS is regulating drones. The Chief responded that they are working with the DHS and the FAA on the issue.

A surprising topic was the permitting system for photography on national forests, from 2:23:40 until 2:33:15. The Chair of the Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, strongly made the point that the very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, needed to be fixed. We last wrote about this issue September 26, 2014. Among other disturbing features of the rules is that an application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area” for the photography. Employees at the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing and filmmaking skills to make that determination, overruling the knowledge, desires, and experience of the photographer. Yesterday Chief Tidwell basically said the same thing, that if an alternative location is available, the photographer should use that, rather than the location identified by the photographer or filmmaker.

Credit goes to Senator Murkowski for strongly advocating that low impact photography in national forests should not be restrained by ridiculous Forest Service rules. She kept pressing for a date by which the revised final rules would be issued, and the Chief said “sometime this year”.

Below is a section out of Chief Tidwell’s lengthy written testimony related to wildland fire. Thankfully, he did not read the eight-page document.


“….Managing Wildland Fires
Increasingly severe fire seasons are one of the greatest challenges facing the Nation’s forests. The Forest Service will continue to collaborate with its Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments, partners, and stakeholders on the implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed, use fire where allowable, manage our natural resources and, as a Nation, live with wildland fire.

The Forest Service has one of the most effective fire organizations in the world and continues to keep almost 98 percent of the wildfires we fight very small. However, the few fires that do escape initial response tend to grow much larger far more quickly than ever before. In addition, the cost of fire suppression has soared in the past 20 years.

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Federal wildland firefighters have been cut by 19 percent over two years

panelEarlier today we mentioned the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s June 4 hearing about wildland fire in which Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and others testified. In the written testimony that he submitted Chief Tidwell said:

For the 2013 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are reduced to those available in 2012. Nonetheless, we will have close to 13,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior…

On June 14, 2011 Chief Tidwell testified before the same committee, saying:

For the 2011 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are comparable to those available in 2010, more than 16,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior…

That amounts to a 19 percent reduction in the number of federal wildland firefighters. With the fire season being extended by 50 days due to climate change, reducing the capacity to fight fires is perhaps is not the best strategy.

Another interesting fact mentioned by Kim Thorsen of the Department of Interior in the hearing is that the Department will double the number of Single Engine Air Tankers this year, bringing the total up to 27.

At the one hour and 23 minute mark, Chief Tidwell makes his case for acquiring some C-27J aircraft to be retrofitted as air tankers if the Air Force decides to get rid of them.

Below are some more excerpts from the written testimony:
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Senator blasts agencies for accomplishing fewer fuel treatment projects, fails to look in mirror

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is criticizing the federal land management agencies for not accomplishing enough hazardous fuel treatment projects, saying “the federal government can’t get this right”, and:

The message has not gotten through with respect to the choice: You can spend more modest amounts on the front end, with preventive kinds of efforts, or you can spend your time investing substantially more money trying to play catch-up as these infernos rip their way through the West.

The Senator is right, in that money spent up front to remove or reduce hazardous fuels can reduce the amount of money spent on fire suppression and minimize damage done to private property and infrastructure. It can also save lives.

In Colorado alone last year, six people were killed by wildfires, an issue we rarely hear being discussed as wildfire budgets are debated. When we’re talking about saving money and acres, how many dollars is a human life worth? Is it the Forest Service’s or BLM’s mission to manage fuels and fire management organizations with a primary objective being to prevent lives being lost in wildfires? It is a complex question, with plenty of responsibility and blame to be distributed to federal, state, and local agencies… and Congress.

The federal agencies know that fuel treatments can save money and help protect private property. And the Senator knows they know this. He should look in the mirror to discover part of the problem. The Senate and the House establish funding levels for the federal government, and the President signs the legislation. The agencies would love to accomplish more fuel reduction projects, but as the amount of money approved by Congress decreases, the first things to fall off the table are fire prevention and hazardous fuel treatments. After those are cut to the bone then the agencies have to start looking at furloughs, reductions in force, staffing fewer fire engines, and cutting back on the number of seasonal firefighters — some of which are occurring this year.

I don’t have any patience with politicians who issue strongly worded press releases (probably written by an intern) that blame an agency for cutting back on services while the politicians cut the budgets that caused the reduction in services.

The video below shows 16 minutes of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s June 4 hearing about wildland fire management. It features Senator Wyden and Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussing budgets, fuel treatments, and next generation air tankers. It was edited to highlight Senator Wyden’s participation in the hearing. A video of the complete almost two-hour hearing can viewed on the Committee’s web site.

Below is the complete text of Senator Wyden’s strongly worded press release, including the bold highlights as it was written:
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