Federal agencies request increased wildland fire funding for next fiscal year

The US Forest Service and the Dept. of Interior are asking for wildland fire budget increases of 37 to 47 percent

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USFS Budget request for fire management resources, FY 2023.
USFS Budget request for fire management resources, FY 2023.

The Biden administration has prepared their request for funding wildland fire management for fiscal year 2023 which begins October 1, 2022. Congress did not do their job and pass an actual FY22 budget for the Departments of Agriculture and Interior (DOI), they only passed a continuing resolution, which is basically the same budget as the year before.

There is nothing binding about these requests. Congress determines the federal budget, but the justification documents provide an insight into what the agencies say they need, after being filtered through the upper echelons of the administration. The requests also detail how taxpayer money was spent during the last two years compared to what they want to do next year.

US Forest Service

The Forest Service (FS) is requesting no change in the numbers of engines, dozers, helicopters, air tankers, smokejumpers, or prevention technicians, but they do want additional “crews” and “other firefighters”, totaling 1,650 personnel.

In 2017 the FS reduced the number of Type 1 helicopters from 34 to 28, and since then the size of the fleet has been stuck there in most years. There were 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in 2002 and the agency is requesting 18 next year. Two studies said there is a need for 35 or 41 large air tankers.

Large air tanker use, 2000-2021
Use of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts by US Forest Service, 2000 through 2021. Shown are the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, the number of requests by firefighters for air tankers (divided by 100), and the percent of requests by firefighters for air tankers that were unable to be filled. Data from NIFC, compiled by FireAviation.

The requested budget for the entire FS for FY23 is $9.0 billion. Of that, $2.7 billion, or 30 percent, would be for wildland fire.

USFS Budget request for fire management, FY 2023
USFS Budget request for fire management, FY 2023.

In the current fiscal year, FY22, the US Forest Service (FS) received $916,140,000 for fire preparedness and salaries, which covers most expenditures related to wildland fire except for that which is spent on actual suppression of fires. For FY23 they are asking for $1,346,271,000, an increase of 47 percent.

The “Explanatory Notes” justification for the FS fire budget lists no previous or current expenditures for fuels management in the fire budget but wants $321,388,000 in FY23. This is because the hazardous fuels program will be shifted from National Forest System accounts to Wildland Fire Management beginning in FY23. But this will be an increase of $141,000,000, or 41 percent.

The total FS budget appropriation for wildland fire including suppression went from $2.3 billion and 10,219 FTEs in FY20, down to $1.9 billion and 9,685 FTE’s in FY22. The agency is requesting $2.6 billion and 12,938 FTEs in FY23.

The summary below of the entire FS budget shows a few interesting details, such as how the total spent on personnel compensation and personal benefits has dropped in the last two years. Travel costs nearly doubled while rental payments to GSA dropped about 80 percent. The average salary in dollars for GS personnel, about $59,000, is expected to remain relatively flat for the fourth consecutive year and the average grade decreased from 8.3 to 8.2 over the last three years.

Entire USFS, Budget request, FY 2023
Entire USFS, Budget request, FY 2023

Department of the Interior

The four land management agencies in the DOI with significant wildland fire budgets are the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DOI is not requesting changes in aircraft numbers, but they do want increases in virtually every other category of resources, including all personnel (+309), Full Time Equivalent (FTE) positions (+528), smokejumpers (+4), engines (+6), and heavy equipment (+21).

DOI Budget request, fire resources, FY 2023
DOI Budget request, fire resources, FY 2023.

In the current fiscal year, FY22, the DOI received $347,105,000 for fire preparedness and salaries. For FY23 they are asking for $477,159,000, an increase of 37 percent. For hazardous fuel treatment they have requested a 38 percent increase, an additional $84,380,000 for FY23.

DOI Fire Budget Request, FY 2023 Program Changes
DOI Fire Budget Request, FY 2023 Program Changes.

The DOI is asking for a 33 percent increase in the Joint Fire Science Program, from $3 million to $4 million. This program had a near death experience during the previous administration.

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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.

22 thoughts on “Federal agencies request increased wildland fire funding for next fiscal year”

  1. There is an almost a direct relationship between “tactics policy” and the need for “certain types of airtankers.”
    For the USFS to want(order) 18 more LATS and zero SEATS, is beyond comprehension in terms of the Chief’s statement to put fires out now. But, wait a minute, perhaps “it is consistent” with their back pocket desire to “manage wildfires for long term ecosystem benefits.” We should all think about that for a minute.
    Those of us with a few thousand hours of fighting and commanding fires for many years in all types of terrain and vegetation, we know that dispositioning a QRF of SEATS on small airfields where nearby forests and brushlands are of the highest fire risk (these are already mapped by the agency), is the ONLY effective way to stop fires before they gather momentum and turn into large scale conflagrations where then LATS are called in where terrain allows.
    So, you see? Why are more LATS being ordered instead of SEATS if tactics policy is to put the fires out immediately? We see the usefulness of LATS on most BLM, F &WL managed lands, but not national forest and most national park managed lands. Lobbying by those who own the LATS must be the answer and the agency or Department has bought in.

  2. Don’t know if this comment really passes the straight face test. Working in heavy timber SEATS are almost entirely useless, they don’t have the penetration or cover even to help box in fires of a few acres. I’d be laughed at if I tried to order SEATS for an IA on a timber fire on almost any of the forests in my region. Grass, brush, juniper, pondo, sure…its worth a shot. High density lodgepole, no way no how, and right now if we are at PL4 or PL5 there are days when a tanker could be a full day out.

    The reality is we need more of everything, but I’ve always had SEATs available when I’ve ordered them, LATs on the other hand are hard to come by and can do quite a bit of damage if you can nab them in the initial attack phase on potentially explosive timber fires.

  3. There’s a lot of knowledge in long time FFs and retirees that would be great to take advantage of but man it’s so hard to hear through their misery and anger and most of them thinking 10am should be gospel.

  4. Why? So they can just create more 12/13 positions and feather their nests? Positions that never actually translate to acres treated or fire containment? All these nebulous positions with goofy titles and black magic PD’s do nothing!!!!!! Everyone wants to be a gangster, until it’s time to do gangster sh__.

  5. We really need a Wildland Fire Agency in the USA. Run by fire folks not line officers or politicians- or folks who have done neither- Like the leadership we have now. Holding on for my pay raise. Way overdue. Give us the air tankers we need and a right sized paid fire fighting workforce.

  6. I just got my latest paycheck. After 15% for retirement and health insurance, taxes, and $370 taken out for childcare spending account, I had $444.92 take home pay.

    This is after 15 years as a federal wildland firefighter and smokejumper. If I don’t like it I can leave I guess…

  7. Smokejumper Bro, where’s the pay raise that was passed into law, where’s the re-classification, what is the hold up, this is the stuff that drives folks mad, folks are not going to wait around forever for a promise that was made, maybe if they are asking for 40+% more funding they will give some of it to you all that need it, 450 take home is hard…..

    Some of you may want to look to other agencies for a living, really, I am sure Cal Fire is always looking for our best to jump, it happens all the time, heck look at DOD, they pay well and you are home a lot, there are options….I never had the guts to jump….came close once or twice when our kids were very young…….it all worked out I guess…..
    It’s past time for your pay raise…..you all need help……Peace……

  8. SB – we got a roll to R8 so that raised my ability to put food on the table. Meanwhile the Fuels AFMO is complaining about how there are no fire resources to help them meet targets. RX doesnt pay.

    DHRS – then help us. Pick up the phone. Use that clout, wisdom, and experience – and make the calls.

  9. Yeah man. I am in the same boat. I am applying for stuff currently.

  10. As long as the majority of the workforce continues to show up for crap pay and mistreatment by the management, don’t expect anything more than crumbs swept off the high table to be coming down to the peons on the ground.

    Being paid in “cool job, bro” works for 20 year olds, and that’s why all the agencies churn through them, and that’s why the average GS level is trending down for actual fire folks.

  11. SMJK Bro,

    I hear you, this is a really tough job with kiddos. I have three little ones but only because my spouse is, by far, the bread winner. We would be living under a bridge collecting the tailings of my 22yr salary if it was just me. I have homeless FF’s that work for me, they live in vans and some camp out in FS campgrounds in a tent…and it is not willingly. Target pays $24/hr now, right out of high school. I have been actively trying to discourage anyone to work here as well as trying to talk my existing folks into quitting to improve their situation. This job and these agencies are a sunk ship, abysmal.

  12. My understanding is that OPM is trying to move full steam ahead on pay but they’re having to drag DOI/USFS kicking and screaming. They’re also finding the reclassification difficult as the bureaucrats making the decisions game no clue what we do other than “put the wet stuff on the hot stuff”.

  13. The $ don’t match the words. Their budget pays an average of 12% less per FTE in FY 23 compared to FY 20.
    From one who has worked in D.C. and an outside observer it seems that they believe they can have firefighting on the cheap. Do more with less has never been a successful long term strategy.

  14. I’ve reviewed budgets for many many years and one of the things that the budget shows us is where the government puts its priorities. To be blunt, this budget tells me that the FS is not putting its employees first. They really could careless that you are homeless or that you are struggling to pay your mortgage or that you can’t afford food or you can’t afford to go to the doctor or pay for medicine and don’t even get me started on saving for retirement. They are telling us they are not planning for the future. They do not care if you are successful. They don’t even seem to care if you live or die. WAKE UP FS! People are leaving your agency. They are leaving because pay is pi$$ poor; moral is down because people are treated like $hit; and people only care about themselves. This budget is not sustainable. This budget doesn’t seem to take into account more people, more fires, inflation, step raises, settlements…its missing a lot!!! You will have to for back for more money. Which is exactly what they said in the last hearing. What? Are you going to come back and ask is for more money? I’m sorry FS, but it looks like your ship is sinking and the only smart thing to do is leave while you still can.

  15. All of the funding, added air resources, and new positions are missing the most important thing in the fire world. I’m talking about experience. Who will be on the ground to apply these resources in a safe efficient manner? Who is going to train this massive amount of new employees(that may or may not get hired)? Where is the infrastructure to support all of these new resources? The experience is gone, the infrastructure isn’t there, the people that have created this problem will not be held accountable. We are 10-20 years away from having adequate experience AND numbers.

    The simple fact is that the people that steer and direct these agencies have no desire to deal with building and managing these “growing” fire programs, nor maintain the current programs they have in place. It is displayed in the hiring process how little they care for the people who perform this work. Months waiting for any inkling of an offer, months waiting to start, scraping by waiting and wondering. It can be fixed. They simply do not care.

    I believe we will see displayed from many non fire staff making clear that they see it as a threat to the non fire programs and a lot of contempt and jealousy will come from it. The uphill battle continues…warning: many false summits ahead!

  16. Old DRHS,

    It is clear to me that they are blocking the pay raise. I’ve been told by multiple people now that the USFS didn’t understand that the law itself created a new pay authority and they could have implemented almost immediately back in November.

    The USFS/DOI were concerned they would have to ask for a special pay rate and that only goes up to 30%, and they were also concerned that people would lose locality pay if a special pay rate was implemented.

    There are very few firefighters that get locality pay, but lots of managers at the >GS12 level that do. So they prioritized the highest paid people and are delaying the pay raise for the lowest paid firefighters.

    But again, there is no reason to delay anymore. They are now testifying they don’t have a staffing shortage to congressional committees. This undermines any needed reforms.

    So blocking a funded pay raise and gaslighting their workforce seems like the strategy from the USFS Washington Office as far as I can tell.

  17. The USFS is the bureaucratic equivalent of a failed state. It cannot effectively perform it’s fire suppression responsibilities due to a top down lack of strategic coherence (i.e., taking a week to decide whether to IA or “manage” a wildfire), the leadership in Washington is either oblivious or does not care that it is hemorrhaging it’s workforce due to low pay for a poor work environment, and on top of all that, all non-fire resource management is sorely neglected due to lack of budget for anything but fire. It’s probably time the Forest Service gave up it’s protection duties to another agency (ala the Alaska Fire Service, where BLM manages fire protection for all federal lands north of the Alaska Range).

  18. Region 2 just had the opportunity to bump Type 1 WFM supervisors from GS-8 to GS-9 and Assistants from GS-7 to GS-8 with a stroke of a pen and the leadership can’t agree on that! People are leaving in droves, and a lot of things are out of our control is what upper management likes to say. But here you have a chance and you squander it….and we can’t figure out why folks are wanting to leave?

  19. I’m leaving. I started an application for the State Police. I don’t need to post another complaint. I’m making moves to resign. Good luck this summer stay safe out there.

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