Senate Committee hearing on outlook for the 2019 wildfire season

Very pointed questions were asked about the Forest Service adopting technology to track locations of firefighters and fires

Senate committee hearing outlook for wildland fire 2019
When the Senate Energy Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing began on June 13, 2019 to “Examine the Outlook for Wildland Fire and Management Programs for 2019” seven Senators were present. They came and went throughout the one hour and 54-minute hearing, with a total of 11 making statements or asking questions.

In what has become an annual routine in recent years, today the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a “Hearing to Examine the Outlook for Wildland Fire and Management Programs for 2019”.

The contingent from the land management agencies providing testimony were:

  • Shawna Legarza, Director, Fire Aviation and Management, Forest Service
  • Jeff Rupert, Office of Wildland Fire, Department of the Interior
  • Wade Crowfoot, Secretary, California Natural Resources Agency
  • Chris Maisch, Alaska State Forester & National Association of State Foresters
senate committee hearing fire four-person panel
The four-person panel providing testimony.

One topic that came up was the Trump Administration’s plans to transfer the management of  25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers from the U.S. Forest Service to the Department of Labor (DOL) and permanently close 9 of those 25 centers. Since then, the decision to close one of the Centers in Montana was reversed. Now we have the back story on how that one Center was taken off the chopping block.

Senator Steve Daines of Montana Job Corps
Senator Steve Daines of Montana discussed the transfer and closing of Job Corps Centers.

During today’s hearing Senator Steve Daines of Montana said it he called President Trump and convinced him to keep the Anaconda Center in his state open. The Senator said after talking with the President he confirmed it with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Mr. Rupert said the DOI “plans to deploy nearly 4,500 firefighting personnel, 500 tribal firefighters, 151 smokejumpers, 17 interagency hotshot crews and 4 Tribal hotshot crews.”

Mrs. Legarza did not specify how many firefighting resources the Forest Service will have this year, but we asked agency Spokesperson Debra Schweizer who told us they will have “more than 10,000 firefighters and 900 engines” plus 324 smokejumpers and 87 hotshot crews. The FS has exclusive use contracts with 18 large air tankers and one single engine air tanker (SEAT). On call when needed contracts at substantially higher hourly and daily rates, they can access, if available:

  • 14 large air tankers
  • 4 scooping CL-415 air tankers
  • 8 military C-130 aircraft outfitted with temporary Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS)
  • An unknown number of old CV580 air tankers from Canada
  • 9 scoopers from Canada

The Forest Service also has on exclusive use contracts this year, 20 air tactical supervision fixed-wing aircraft, 6 smokejumper aircraft, and 15 lead/aerial supervision module aircraft. Plus, 6 agency-owned smokejumper aircraft, 1 air tactical supervision fixed-wing aircraft, and two infrared fixed-wing aircraft.

For a couple of years the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been pushing the federal land management agencies to work toward what I call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing in real time the locations of firefighters and the fire. Fourteen months after it was first introduced, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act became law after it was included in an omnibus bill, the Natural Resources Management Act. The Senate passed it with a vote of 92 to 8, and the House followed suit, 363 to 62. On March 12, 2019 it was signed by the President.

Now that the legislation has become Public Law 116-9 the federal land management agencies are directed to adopt or build on a number of new technologies that can enhance the safety of firefighters and aid in the suppression of wildfires. Some of the requirements have deadlines:

    • 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. (180 days, due by September 8, 2019)
    • 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, March 12, 2020)
    • 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, March 12, 2021)  According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell, by the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.
Senator Maria Cantwell location tracking firefighters
Senator Maria Cantwell asked when the Forest Service would implement location tracking technology.

During today’s hearing, Senator Maria Cantwell asked Shawna Legarza, Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service, “What are you doing to implement the tools that we gave you?

Below are partial transcripts of the back and forth that begins at about 1:21:30 in the video which can be viewed at the Committee’s website:

Senator Cantwell: We are seeing other people implementing these GPS systems as it relates to resources and fire engines, and moving forward I know that BLM has now agreed to doing this immediately. What can we do to get the Forest Service to immediately implement that GPS system so we know the location of resources and assets and hopefully onto our firefighters as well so we can protect them this season.

Mrs. Legarza: Thank you Senator. So what we are doing in the Forest Service, actually interagency at the National Interagency Fire Center in just a couple of weeks we are having a three-day industry technology day to find out what is out there, and then together we’re gonna figure out what do we need interagency, not just the Forest Service, but with the BLM and the states, and then put together a request for information and RFP for proposal to find out how much that costs so that we can all talk together and be integrated.

Senator Cantwell: …With the fire season upon us, the fact that the BLM has implemented this right away, why can’t we get the Forest Service to do the same?

Mrs. Legarza:  We’re putting (inaudible) together to do that.

Senator Cantwell:   …I get that there are a lot of new tools. I guess what we are saying, pick the most urgent one that you can implement today. Do not study this for an entire year.

Shawna Legarza, Fire and Aviation Director, Forest Service
Shawna Legarza, Fire and Aviation Director, Forest Service

In 2014 when Mrs. Lagarza was the USFS Fire Director for the agency’s Region 5 (California), she was interviewed by CBS News and talked in positive terms about tracking the locations of firefighters and the fire. Unfortunately the video is no longer available.

Our Take:

The fact that the Forest Service needs a three-day meeting “to find out what is out there”, makes it appears that the agency collectively knows practically nothing about these technologies and is basically starting from scratch in order to appear to be trying to meet the mandate in the recently passed law.

At least four to five years ago one of the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Incident Commanders was tasked with addressing the issue of tracking the locations of fires and firefighters.

On January 31, 2017 I asked Forest Service Spokesperson Jennifer Jones about the status of the effort to adopt these technologies. I was not getting very detailed answers, so finally I asked, “Is this a low priority effort that has one person working on it as a collateral duty when he or she has time in the winter, or is it an all-out effort that is full time for 5 people?”

She responded: “This was proposed and accepted as a formal U.S. Forest Service Technology Development Program project. It has been funded for the last two years and we expect that it will continue to be funded until it is completed. The project is being led by a U.S. Forest Service Technology and Development Program staff member with the participation of additional subject matter experts as needed.”

So, to schedule a meeting to “find out what’s out there”, sounds like little to nothing has been accomplished during the last four years in the funded “formal U.S. Forest Service Technology Development Program project”.

Taxpayer funds have supposedly been spent for at least four years on adopting this location technology, but results of their study are hard to identify.

The Forest Service appears to be using their often-implemented and very effective slow-walk tactic. Study an issue for years and years and in some cases don’t even release the findings —  like the Rand air tanker study, incorporating seven Coast Guard HC-130Hs into their air tanker fleet, and the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study that began in 2012.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Senate Committee hearing on outlook for the 2019 wildfire season”

  1. Wildfire personnel are warriors who fight an enemy (fire) that kills both our citizens and our firefighters. Washington State is fortunate to have two female Senators who are warriors for the warriors. Senator Maria Cantwell, fighting for the wildland firefighters, and Senator Patty Murray who is a staunch supporter of US military Veterans.

  2. It occurs to me that perhaps some personnel do not understand the current digital resources.

  3. This tactic of stalling doesn’t seem to be used when extracting resources from public lands?

  4. Good article.
    Tracking of resources may help in firefighter safety. I hope this is not an unfunded mandate from Congress as far as the new technology. It is interesting that Type I incidents will be the first to use. History tells me that more firefighter lives have been lost during initial attack/extended attack (Yarnell, South Canyon) are the more recent incidents.

  5. Someone will have to ride herd on the Forest Service in order to get this done. It’s too important to let it stall.

  6. Good article and well said, Bill. I do know, on the district level, my USFS district (in Region 2) is integrated with a BLM office. From office space to sharing engine personal on IA assignments (which is very forward thinking). One of the few such integrations as far as I know. The BLM projects and personnel have a far easier time, both in paperwork and funding, of getting their equipment and protects approved.


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