A $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill with funding for some wildland fire issues passed an important procedural vote in the Senate Friday that opened up the legislative package to the next phase, potential changes and amendments. In the evenly divided body at least 60 votes are needed for amendments and final passage. It received 66 today which allows it to move forward in the process. The Senate version of the bill is S.2377 – Energy Infrastructure Act.
About 0.3 percent, or approximately $3,369,000,000 in this $1 trillion “small” infrastructure bill is directed at wildland fire. Another infrastructure bill that may spend more than $3 trillion will be considered later.
The $1 trillion version appropriates funds toward a couple of dozen wildland fire issues, most of which are important, but especially a few that have been near and dear to the hearts of Federal
firefighters Forestry Technicians for years, especially the creation of a Wildland Firefighter occupational series. This would mean if the bill passes they will no longer be pigeonholed as they are now in a Forestry Technician job description. A bump in salary is also included.
After it made it onto the Senate floor this week things started happening quickly. While amendments can be brought forward, there is hope that the final version could receive a vote in a matter of days, perhaps as early as Sunday August 1. If not then, probably soon thereafter. However, with politicians and legislation anything is possible — or sometimes impossible. After it passes the Senate, then it moves to the House where the outcome is less certain. The politicians and staffers are motivated to do SOMETHING, because they are anxious to leave on their August recess.
The bill authorizes $600 million for management of personnel — those who fight fires.
- The bill directs OPM to develop a distinct “wildland firefighter” occupational series.
- The DOI and FS shall convert no fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to wildland firefighters that are full-time, permanent, year-round Federal employees who will reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land for at least 800 hours each year.
- The base salaries of Federal wildland firefighters will be increased by the lesser of an amount that is commensurate with an increase of $20,000 per year or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary.
- Develop mitigation strategies for wildland firefighters to minimize exposure due to line-of-duty environmental hazards.
- Establish programs for permanent, temporary, seasonal, and year-round wildland firefighters to recognize and address mental health needs, including care for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other provisions of the the bill, authorized for fiscal years 2022 through 2026. (M = million)
- $20M, Satellite fire detection
- $10M, Radio interoperability
- $30M, Reverse 911 systems
- $50M, Slip-on firefighting modules for pickup trucks
- $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
- $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires
- $20M, Joint Fire Science Program (research)
- $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
- $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
- $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
- $500M, Prescribed fires
- $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks
- $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products
- $200M, Post-fire restoration
- $8M, Firewood banks
- $10M, Wildfire detection and real-time monitoring equipment
One issue this legislation does not address is the inadequate funding of aerial firefighting, the use of air tankers and helicopters to assist firefighters on the ground by dropping water or retardant to slow the spread of wildfires, which is necessary for Homeland Security. The Federal agencies entered the year with 18 large air tankers and 28 large Type 1 helicopters, when they should have 40 large air tankers and 50 large helicopters on exclusive use 10-year contracts instead of the existing 1-year contracts.