President’s proposed fire budget calls for modest increases

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The President of the United States has released the administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which begins October 1, 2014. President Obama is requesting a 4.8 percent increase in the wildland fire budget for the U.S. Forest Service and a 7.1 percent increase in the fire budgets of the four agencies in the Department of the Interior with wildland fire programs.

Of course there are two disclaimers. It is only a proposal from the Administration. And, Congress, which has not passed a budget in four of the last five years, must vote to pass it or come up with one of their own. Getting Congress to agree on what day of the week it is would probably be difficult.

The Department of the Interior’s fire budget is 8 percent of the size of the USFS fire budget. Fewer details were released about the DOI budget but they requested a 4.3 percent increase in funding for hazardous fuel management and a 7.1 percent bump in wildland fire management.

More information about the USFS proposal is below.

FY 2015 proposed USFS fire budget FY 2015 Proposed USFS budget resources summary

The USFS included the information below

The FY15 President’s Budget , which include legacy airtankers, next generation large airtankers, and an agency owned C-130H aircraft. The Forest Service will exercise options under the exclusive use contracts for additional airtankers, if necessary. The agency will also phase out the legacy airtankers as the next generation large airtankers become available, thereby maintaining between 18 to 28 contracted and agency-owned next generation large airtankers as identified in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) transferred seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The aircraft will initially be transferred to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting and installation of a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for airtanker missions in late 2014.

The NDAA provided $130,000,000 to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting all seven aircraft and $5,000,000 each for the installation of the retardant delivery system. The Forest Service will pay for operation and maintenance of the C-130Hs within our requested budget by implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability. Programmatic efficiencies include implementation of the optimized dispatching analysis, streamlining of our information technology (IT) investments through the Wildland Fire IT initiative and a decrease in programmatic administrative costs, such as managing aviation assets under national contracts, streamlined hiring processes, centralizing training opportunities, and shared fire leadership positions between administrative units.

Some interesting passages above include the fact that this proposal “will fund 25 airtankers under exclusive use contracts”, which would be a huge increase from the 9 under contract in 2014. If they receive funding for 25, but actually produce a much smaller number, we will have some questions.

And, one of the seven C-130H aircraft the USFS got from the Coast Guard may be fully retrofitted as an air tanker and could be available before the end of 2014. Gannet newspapers wrote that two of them will not need to have their wing boxes replaced, a 10-month process that costs $6.7 million each. Of course all seven of them need to have retardant tank systems installed.

Another interesting part was “…implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability.”

The administration intends to maintain the same number of USFS firefighters as for the two previous years, 10,000. We went through the budgets as far back as FY 2002 and accumulated the following statistics about the number of firefighters in the agency. Obviously the number for 2015 is proposed.

Number of USFS firefighters, 2002 - 2015

Next we have the average size of fires. As they grow larger, the number of USFS firefighters has remained the same or decreased.

Average fire size, United States, excluding Alaska

Note: Alaska, the northernmost state, was not included in the above analysis because the state has numerous very, very large fires in remote areas that sometimes are not suppressed at all. Including these low priority fires which can exceed 100,000 acres each would skew the averages.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ken.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

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