(UPDATED at 5 p.m. MST February 12, 2019)
On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act described below with a vote of 92 to 8. It directs the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to implement systems to enhance the situational awareness capability of wildland firefighters. A last minute attempt by Senator Rand Paul to authorize the sale of some U.S. Forest Service land in Kentucky was shot down.
The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.
Now the bill goes to the House of Representatives where it will likely be considered after the mid-February recess.
(Originally published at 2:49 p.m. MST February 7, 2019)
A bill that was introduced a year ago in the 2017-2018 Congress that could enhance the safety of wildland firefighters has been resurrected in the new Congress. Last year S.2290, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2018 looked like it had a chance of being passed after being approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in December.
Most of the provisions in the bill have now been incorporated into an omnibus bill, a conglomeration of over 100 pieces of legislation combined into one huge lands bill that is hundreds of pages long. It is designated as Senate Bill 47, the Natural Resources Management Act and has 15 bipartisan sponsors — 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and one independent.
In a February 5 procedural vote 99 out of 100 senators voted yes. Rand Paul of Kentucky was the lone dissenter. But it still needs full passage from the Senate and the House and of course a signature by the President.
If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.
The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives.
Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.
We were told by a staffer in Washington that articles on Wildfire Today in which we wrote about the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety were distributed on Capital Hill to inform legislators about the issue.
The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.
- Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
- Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 180 days)
- Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years)
- Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
- Assign air quality resource advisors to Type 1 incidents managing a fire on federal land. (no time requirement)
- Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
- The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
- The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)
This version of the bill removes the previous requirement to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires.
The bill does not appropriate any additional funding to implement the real-time tracking provision. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the estimated $8 million cost is “insignificant” in the overall billions of dollars spent on wildland fire. Discussions behind the scenes in Washington are centered around small tracking devices being included in kits available from the wildland fire warehouse system which can be ordered by incident management teams the same way they order radio kits. The devices could then be distributed to personnel and other resources on fires. The newer Bendix-King radios used by firefighters already have GPS receivers which could be used to provide location data in a tracking system.
There is no routine annual funding for the land management agencies in this bill. That is addressed in H.R.266 which has not been passed. If the agencies are not funded they will be subject another government shutdown on February 15.
In the video below published on February 4, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to favor passage of the bill — beginning at 1:30.