Senate Committee Chair: Put out wildfires fast and early

Senator Murkowski encouraged the land management agencies to ensure there are a sufficient number of aircraft available to play a greater role on initial attack

White Draw Fire, South Dakota
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, July 2, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican Chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, yesterday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt encouraging them to adopt an aggressive posture for fighting wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Currently, the federal government along with state and local governments across the country are mobilized to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And now those same government entities, already stretched thin, are preparing to fight wildland fire in a world where COVID-19 still rages,” Murkowski wrote. “This problem could be particularly pronounced for regions like the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, which only received 40 percent of anticipated snowpack levels this winter.”

Coronavirus Response wildfireMurkowski urged the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to put fires out fast and early, and to limit the practice of intentionally allowing some wildfires to burn on landscapes. She also encouraged the agencies to ensure a sufficient number of aircraft are available to play a greater role on initial attack and emphasized the importance of protecting the health and safety of wildland firefighters.

“This season, these heroes will be waging a war against wildfires in at-risk communities in addition to a pandemic that threatens their families,” Murkowski wrote. “I understand that both Departments are producing guidance to ensure the public health and use of social distancing of firefighters who are deployed in the field. You are no doubt managing firefighter safety as a top priority and I encourage you to continue doing so.”

One of the roles of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is to oversee the four primary federal land management agencies — Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Forest Service.

Click here to view the full letter from Senator Murkowski.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Senate Committee Chair: Put out wildfires fast and early”

  1. I think it’s really important that we limit comparisons of firefighters and other essential personnel to ‘heros waging a war.’ This is a common tactic taken by politicians that is used to try to justify loss of lives or increased acceptance of risk as necessary for the future success of the country. While we’re all extremely aware of the negative impact that wildfire can have on communities, I think it misses the mark to compare wildfire to wartime. Concerns are already being raised that this could be a high fatality season since we’re seeing decreases in critical training and we’re already seeing increased pressure to suppress fires quickly while they are small. If anything, this is reminiscent of the 10am policy era. This pressure could lead to firefighters taking undue risk in an effort to meet the objectives being set by a very displaced washington branch of each respective agency. I think this season might be a really good one to evaluate our tactics and, as we always have, prioritize responses where life and property are imminently threatened. The point has been raised in the comments here that fire use this season could actually require less personal, reduce the amount of hazard being accepted by personnel, all while maintaining isolation or physical distancing with crews.

    1. The Senator’s comments miss what is most important – the safety of firefighters and the communities where they live and work. Her Committee must focus on ensuring land management agencies have the plans and resources necessary for frequent and ubiquitous diagnostic and antibody testing of firefighters. In addition, the Committee must ensure the agencies have robust protocols and resources for tracking and isolating close contacts of any firefighter diagnosed with COVID 19.

      A massive testing/tracing/isolating program for interagency fire management organizations is essential for firefighter and community safety. The Senator and her Committee should make sure such a program is developed rapidly and is adequately funded.

  2. Senator Murkowski, perhaps if Congress stopped reducing funding, say as it has the past 10 years, we might have the resources we will need this summer, including increased appropriate levels of aircraft. Please Senator, do your job now, by immediately making an emergency funding appropriation before the fire season takes off.

  3. “One approach to this unprecedented challenge is simple: put fires out fast and early“

    Thanks to the esteemed senator, we now know how to accomplish our primary goal. After all, it’s “simple”

    Aircraft….use it and make sure you have enough aircraft to put all the fires out….(Paraphrased off her letter, can’t get back to her letter while I’m on my phone typing this)
    As has often been stated here on Wildfire Today, the number of available aircraft has decreased over the years, leading to, a resource that in busy years is non-existent for the rest of the nation. Until the esteemed senators and her colleagues agree to fully fund wildland fire and the associated agencies, aircraft will be hard pressed to do what they expect it to do. And as Thor mentioned, risk transfer and the fact that pilots still have to have interactions with ground personnel as they land, get reloaded, flight time, etc etc

    Both agencies are adopting standards to protect and guide firefighters during this pandemic and I’m sure safety of those firefighters will be your most important mission. (Paraphrased off of her letter, can’t get back to it on my phone while I type this)
    Again, Hahahaha
    There has been NOTHING but out by the agencies on this. A quick one page letter talking about social distancing and washing your hands is all I have seen put out.
    Three Area Command teams have been deployed to answer questions and come out with guidance and guidelines. When are those coming out? What is the timeframe for seeing what they have worked on? Will we have a chance to see it before the first fires of the season and will we have a chance to adapt the “plan” to our area and the situation each area finds themselves in?

    Teams – Will the full team respond when called out, or will remote teams work? Plans, logistics, finance, PIO, all working from their respective offices (homes) to lower the risk? Or, do they need to be at the incident? Keeping those safe, but the firefighters on the ground, working up put the fire out, can it be done safely in this era, as the esteemed Senator wishes?

    As Cliff states another sound bite by a politician….

    Anyway, stay well, take care of each other

  4. In the interest of full disclosure I am an air guy but wouldn’t it be nice if the good senator (and the rest of the politicians) understood air assets, while photogenic, don’t put fires out. The infantry (and in some cases, God) does that. As usual the politicians talk of that which they have no understanding causing us to redirect critical, and in this case, very expensive resources in the wrong direction. Applying air resources without ground followup is poor risk management and is almost always ineffective and therefore a waste of money. I suspect her interest is genuine but rather than a political feel good soundbite perhaps she could help us figure out how we are realistically going to minimize the contagion spread and better protect the necessary firefighters this season?

  5. If humans cause 90% of wildland fires, do we shut down all public lands, like we would in an extreme drought?

  6. Perfect, we can just transfer all the risk to aircraft pilots who must be immune from CV? And If I learned one thing, it’s never rely on aircraft too much.

    Also, it would make sense, in theory, to lean towards a big box, even on smaller fires.
    Help me out here…
    Wouldn’t a maximum acreage management plan require fewer firefighters?
    If you were concerned about FF exposure, wouldn’t it make sense to assign the LEAST amount FF possible to limit exposure?
    What is the guidance for contract resources and how can they be enforced?
    Do we only work fires with Gov resources only?


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