Pending legislation related to wildland fire

We endorse the bill to establish a federal wildland firefighter occupational series and a significant boost in their pay

U.S. Capitol building

In a typical Congressional session only three to five percent of bills that are introduced are actually passed and become law. In this two-year session which is drawing to a close so far only one percent have reached that status. So we don’t get too excited when a bill is introduced that looks like it would be beneficial to wildland fire or land management.

Having said that, there are at least four pending pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the last few months that could be of interest to wildland firefighters.

Wildland Fire Mitigation & Management Commission Act of 2020
Senator Mitt Romney announced the bill October 15 and it has not yet been introduced. As described by the Senator in a press release, it would establish a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders — including city and county level representation — to study and recommend fire mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.

The Commission would be jointly managed by the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Administrator of FEMA, and comprised of 25 members: 8 federal and 17 non-federal members.

It would develop two reports which would be presented to Congress:

  1. Recommendations to Mitigate and Manage Fires
  2. Firefighting Aircraft and Aircraft Parts Inventory Assessment

The fact that the Commission would not be dominated by or reporting to the U.S. Forest Service makes it an interesting concept.

National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 –  S.4625
Introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon September 17, 2020, it has two co-sponsors and has not been referred to committee. I could not find a House version. It seeks to expand the use of prescribed fire on federal land. Up to $300 million would be appropriated each year beginning in FY 2022 based on requests from the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.

The funds could be used to carry out prescribed fire projects, hire additional personnel and procure equipment “including unmanned aerial systems equipped with an aerial ignition systems to implement a greater number of prescribed fires.” Also, to provide training, reseeding, and monitoring for fire effects.

It would authorize assistance to states and local governments:

“(A) to provide federally sponsored insurance administered by States, in conjunction with State- sponsored training and certification programs, for private persons implementing prescribed fires;
(B) to establish a training or certification program for teams comprised of citizens or local fire services to conduct prescribed fires on private land, consistent with any standards developed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group or State prescribed fire standards;
(C) to enable additional fire managers and apparatus, whether provided by the local resources of an agency, private contractors, nongovernmental organizations, Indian Tribes, local fire services, or qualified individuals, to be present while implementing a prescribed fire”

The bill requires the Agriculture and Interior departments to carry out prescribed fires each year on 1,000,000 to 20,000,000 acres. It also requires, subject to the availability of appropriations, not later than September 30, 2022, the Secretaries shall each have carried out a minimum of 1 prescribed fire on each unit of the National Forest System, unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, unit of the National Park System, and Bureau of Land Management district if the unit is at least 100 acres (with some exceptions).

It requires the hiring of additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires, authorizes noncompetitive conversions of seasonal firefighters to permanent, employment of formerly incarcerated individuals, establishment of training centers for prescribed fire, “managed-wildfire”, and a virtual prescribed fire training center.

The bill would establish by law that except in the case of gross negligence, a Federal employee planning or overseeing a prescribed fire that escaped– (1) shall not be subject to criminal prosecution; and (2) shall not be subject to civil proceedings, except in accordance with section 2672 of title 28, United States Code. It would also provide up to $1,000,000 to meet with state officials to discuss liability protection for state certified prescribed fire managers.

Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020S.4431 and H.R.7978
The Senate version was introduced September 16, 2020 by Senator Dianne Feinstein and has four co-sponsors. The House bill was introduced August 7, 2020 by Rep. Jimmy Panett and has nine co-sponsors. The Senate bill has only been introduced, while the House version has at least made it to committee.

It would require the USDA, in consultation with the Department of the Interior, to initiate three “forest landscape projects”, the definition of which is not more than 75,000 acres. The objectives would be to reduce the risk of wildfire, restore ecological health, and adapt the landscape to the increased risk of wildfire due to climate change.

The bill excludes certain forest management activities from environmental review requirements.

It authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to declare that an “emergency situation” exists, which would then allow:

“(A) the salvage of dead or dying trees;
(B) the harvest of trees damaged by wind or ice;
(C) the commercial and noncommercial sanitation harvest of trees to control insects or disease, including trees already infested with insects or disease;
(D) the reforestation or replanting of fire- impacted areas through planting, control of competing vegetation, or other activities that enhance natural regeneration and restore forest species”

Wildland Firefighter Recognition ActS.1682 and H.R.8170
Introduced in the House September 4, 2020 by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, and in the Senate May 23, 2020 by Senator Steve Daines. The Senate bill has gone nowhere, and the House version is in committee.

This bill requires the Office of Personnel Management to develop a distinct wildland firefighter occupational series. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture must use the series in the advertising and hiring of a wildland firefighter.

The bill requires an employee in a wildland firefighter occupational series to receive a pay differential based on the unusual physical hardship or hazardous nature of the position.

An individual employed as a wildland firefighter on the date on which the occupational series takes effect may (1) remain in the occupational series in which the individual is working, or (2) be included in the wildland firefighter occupational series.

Wildfire Today strongly endorses S.1682 and H.R.8170 and the establishment of the wildland firefighter occupational series with a significant boost in their pay. These jobs are one of the most hazardous, and require a level of knowledge and skill that can take a decade or more to acquire and develop. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, special forces, some of whom work well over 100 hours a week with only a few days off each month, traveling around the country separated from their families missing birthdays, anniversaries, and soccer games. Recognizing them and paying what they deserve, could improve retention which could enhance the overall quality of the workforce.

If you have an opinion about these pieces of legislation, contact your elected officials. If you support the Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, feel free to borrow some of the words in the previous paragraph when you contact your legislators.

The 20-year history of fires in the Boulder, Colorado area

October 19, 2020   |   5 a.m. MDT 

Colorado fire history Boulder
The history of fires north and west of Boulder, from 2000 to October 18, 2020.

The map shows the history of fires north and west of Boulder, Colorado from 2000 through October 18, 2020. It includes two fires that are currently active, the Lefthand and Calwood Fires.

The fire on the map that is most notable for many Coloradans is likely the 6,200-acre Fourmile Canyon Fire on Labor day of 2010:

  • It burned 169 homes.
  • 12 of those were firefighters’ homes.
  • This was one of the first fires where it became known that private firefighters hired by an insurance company defended homes of policy holders that were valued at more than $1 million.
  • The state of Colorado did not apply for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide help for the property owners that were affected by the fire. If a disaster declaration had been requested and then approved by the President, FEMA may have made assistance available for individuals including temporary housing, disaster losses not covered by insurance, related medical costs, replacement of vehicles and clothing, moving costs, and disaster unemployment insurance.

We covered the Fourmile Canyon Fire extensively.

Red Flag Warnings and smoke forecast, October 17, 2020

Red Flag Warnings, October 17, 2020
Red Flag Warnings, October 17, 2020.
Forecast for wildfire smoke
Forecast for wildfire smoke at 2 a.m. MDT October 18, 2020.

Trump administration reverses decision to deny California’s request for fire disaster assistance

A disaster declaration allows cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding

Updated October 16, 2020   |   3:25 p.m. MDT

Friday afternoon the Trump administration reversed their decision to deny the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the President has approved California’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to wildfires across the state and support impacted residents in Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response,” said Governor Newsom.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration helps people in the impacted counties through eligibility for support including crisis counseling, housing and unemployment assistance and legal services. It also provides federal assistance to help state, tribal and local governments fund emergency response, recovery and protective measures.

October 16, 2020   |   8:20 a.m. PDT

Fires California aid request denied

The Trump administration has denied the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020. A declaration would allow cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal government. The state plans to appeal the decision.

According to data compiled by Wildfire Today from InciWeb and the National Interagency Fire Center, the six fires in the aid request burned a total of 655,637 acres and destroyed at least 1,604 structures.

One of the six, the 341,722-acre Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, is the largest single fire in the state’s recorded history that was not part of a complex or the result of multiple fires burning together. It is still very active and grew for another 4,067 acres Thursday, producing large quantities of smoke affecting much of central California.

The other fires in the aid request were the Slater in northwest California, Bobcat near Los Angeles, El Dorado east of Yucaipa, Valley in San Diego County, and Oak near Mendocino.

From ABC News:

Federal Emergency Management Agency press secretary Lizzie Litzow told ABC News in a statement Friday that “the damage assessments FEMA conducted with state and local partners determined that the early September fires were not of such severity and magnitude to exceed the combined capabilities of the state, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responding federal agencies.”

FEMA, however, did approve four fire management assistance grants in five California counties for wildfires included in the state’s disaster request, according to Litzow.

“These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters,” she said. .

Under the Fire Management Assistance Grant Program, FEMA provides assistance in the form of grants for equipment, supplies, and personnel costs for the mitigation, management, and control of any fire on public or private forest land.

Mr. Trump has threatened numerous times to stop sending federal money to California, including during a Cabinet meeting October 17, 2018:

So I say to the Governor, or whoever is going to be the Governor of California, better get your act together cause California we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.

The President reaffirmed the issue November 10, 2018 in a tweet:

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!

Trump tweet Nov 10, 2018 forest fires california

On January 9, 2019 Mr. Trump again addressed the issue in a tweet:

Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forrest (sic) fires that, with proper Forrest (sic) management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money!

Trump President forrest
Tweet by President Trump which was deleted Jan. 9, 2019, then reposted with correct spellings.

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Climate change is part of the equation that has resulted in longer fire seasons, extremes of heat and cold, drought in some areas, high fire danger, and dry fuels that are very receptive to rapid fire spread.

Creek fire burned gas station
Gas station on the Creek Fire, photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO
national guard helicopters creek fire california
Helicopters from the California National Guard mobilized for the Creek Fire. Photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO.

Smoke forecast, 7 p.m. MDT October 15, 2020

Smoke forecast for 7 p.m. MDT October 15, 2020
Smoke forecast for 7 p.m. MDT October 15, 2020. NOAA.

The smoke forecast for 7 p.m. MDT October 15 predicts significant issues from the Creek Fire in Central California and the Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado.

Wetter conditions in Australia may lead to a fire season very different from a year ago

Australia fire outlook September through November, 2020

The 2020/21 fire season will be influenced by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons, according to a September through November outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre.

With a La Niña ALERT now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring. Despite the wetter climate signals, parts of Queensland face above normal fire potential in the south east and central coast, extending to the north.

While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help in the short-term, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer.

In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions persist in Western Australia, with above normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.

Australia temperature outlook, October through December, 2020


Australia precipitation outlook October through December, 2020


Australia plans on having six large air tankers available during the 2020-2021 bushfire season.