The IMDB description of the 1993 film Groundhog Day offers this hope for escaping the whirlpool: “A narcissistic, self-centered weatherman finds himself in a time loop on Groundhog Day, and the day keeps repeating until he gets it right.”
Thirty years of film history later, in our wildfire world we may seem stuck like weatherman Phil, repeating the day (and our fire processes) until we get it right. Yet a range of recent releases may hint of some key transitions.
If you have a bit of time (as did weatherman Phil), you might explore the documents put in play. The most concise might be the Wildfire Emergency Act of 2023 – you can track it at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/118/s188 – but for now the full text is at sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s site.
The legislation introduced on the last day of January 2023 builds from the same-named act of 2021 (should they have just waited for Groundhog Day?), which didn’t progress in 2021, but the emergency frame and elements have reappeared in this new bill. The legislation has bipartisan support, with Republican Montana Sen. Steve Daines joining three Democrats – sponsor Feinstein and cosponsoring senators Alex Padilla of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
While the bill is framed as a response to the wildfire and climate emergency, many of the proposals reflect the rise of “cohesive strategy” as a core vision for fire initiatives. As Wyden said, “To address the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the West an all-of-the-above approach is needed. This means making essential upgrades to keep the lights on when disaster strikes and giving communities the firefighting workforce and latest technology required to get fires under control. Our bill also prioritizes mitigation work now to prevent wildfires from turning into the megafires that destroy lives and property. The climate crisis is here, and the West needs more support.”
Feinstein affirms the all-hands-on-deck approach. “Every level of government and the private sector must be involved in this fight, and this bill will go a long way toward helping us prepare for a hotter, drier future.”
What a region-specific and bottom-to-top bill might actually produce, if a lot of committee meetings, votes, and budget-wrangling welds it into law, may include both specified and unspecified funds to accomplish key fireshed transitions. The news release offers a synthesis – with proposed commitments to landscape-scale forest restoration, community-level resilience, and added emphasis and new initiatives on applied sensing technology and workforce development.
A change of note: the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is to be consulted on one or more Prescribed Fire Training Centers in any state entirely located west of the 100th meridian. This will offer a key expansion and a fire-regime diversification of the essential work by the single national center in Florida, but equally noteworthy is that JFSP still exists and may play a key role in this initiative – since not so long ago folks had to argue to keep JFSP funded.
What may be missing are elements of national workforce change and a lack of “moonshot” glitter in both the funding and unspecified tech initiatives. But what’s here promises to expand recent initiatives to more stakeholders. If adopted, we might see at least one prescribed fire training center identified within a year and funding for wildfire and forest-restoration training centers West-wide (with grants to states, academic institutions, and professional organizations that may speed the rollout). Additionally, up to 20 landscapes of 100,000 acres will use $250 million “to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and wildfire resilience projects.” That’s $125 an acre for some 2 million acres, which promises a lot of work, commensurate with “the true cost of fire” (reported by Bill Gabbert in 2020), which quotes Prof. Ernesto Alvarado: “I think we should concentrate more on the human losses.” These funds will align with $50 million for community grants and a $13,000 per low-income household for wildfire-hardening retrofits.
The challenges to the wildfire workforce are increasing due in no small part to fire regime shifts that prompted the Wildfire Emergency Act, yet the pace of federal administrative change may not be ramping as fast as the fires. Which is where our political change is at now – fed by the concerns from public and legislators and the push by firefighter advocates like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFF).
This is the background to two recent letters seeking to amp up and wisen up the changes. One, sent January 18 from a bipartisan group of seven western senators to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), seeks clarification and correction to federal housing guidelines that undercut firefighter recruitment and retention. Such as: if your roommate leaves (not something you can usually manage), you pay their part of the rent. support to correct housing inequities. As well as changes to bunkhouse and remote-housing formulas for determining rent. In their request for a briefing on OMB Circular A-45R, the senators observe that “Federal wildland firefighters have a difficult and dangerous job, and it is the federal government’s responsibility to support them in this work.”
The second letter, from GRWFF and NFFF to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), takes a broader focus and goes farther — but essentially, even existentially – into the deep regarding the November 2022 GAO report, “Wildland Fire: Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefighters,” that identified some but not all of the barriers and reforms identified by groups like the GRWFF and NFFF.
There’s much in the letter that will shape the dialogues this coming year (which we’ll be following), but as good a place to start now is the direct request to the GAO toward the letter’s close:
“Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and NFFE deeply appreciate the GAO’s initial report. Considering its blind spots, however, we respectfully request a second investigation into these barriers, and a second report, one that incorporates the input of a significant number of current and former wildland firefighters – and prioritizes the wisdom of those who occupy marginalized identities.”
Among many questions and suggestions regarding pay, housing, equity, work-life balance, retirement (covering most of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of which aren’t supported currently), the letter highlights that “the elephant in the room is safety and health – what our firefighters risk every day. Although federal wildland firefighters are at higher risks of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, PTSD and traumatic injuries, these go undiscussed in the GAO’s report. The federal government does not recognize a correlation between environmental exposures such as wildfire smoke and the incidence of cancers or cardiovascular diseases. More than two dozen firefighters died in the line of duty in 2022 fighting wildfires. These risks are unaccounted for when determining pay for firefighters. Prospective recruits and veteran firefighters balk at the low pay for a job that may injure or kill them and will take years off their lives. Although federal wildland firefighters can spend over 1,000 hours every fire season exposed to these hazards, no formal education program exists on either the dangerous consequences or mitigation strategies for employees.”
For additional details, see the January 25 letter and the set of reforms proposed by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and NFFF in 2022.
For the record, Punxsutawney Phil reportedly saw his shadow today and his managers are predicting six more weeks of winter. To my knowledge, few fire managers base their spring prescribed fire plans on whether Phil sees his shadow. Yet we in the fire profession can claim a key functional connection: this rodent-centric celebration has roots in such say-goodbye-to-winter traditions as Candlemas (and its hedgehog) and the Irish/Celtic celebration of St. (née goddess) Brigid, all of which are celebrated with bonfires and candles. So light a fire to the passing of winter, but do note that yesterday’s Fire Outlook predicts a mellower beginning to fire season, which may at least mean we’re not as likely to see the shadows of recent active early fire seasons.