The future of wildfire: a year-round challenge requires a year-round workforce

Seasonal firefighter positions need to be converted to career seasonal or full-time permanents

firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada. The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 calls for a $50 million increase to hire more firefighters, converting many temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. (Photo courtesy BLM Nevada)

BY JEFF RUPERT
The nature of wildfire and the risks associated with it have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In most areas the window in which wildfires traditionally occur has grown from five to seven months of the year. Taking regional differences into account—California, Florida, and Montana burn at different times of the year—we no longer have “fire seasons” in the United States. We have “fire years.”

These changes are compounded by how much fires have grown. The average number of acres burned by decade is double what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Over that same time span, the wildland urban interface—those bits of land that blend housing and the natural, burnable world—has grown by 40%, putting more far more people at risk to wildfire.

Land managers around the world face significant challenges. The recent wildfires in Australia illustrate the gravity of the situation and the tremendous risk to communities. People in California continue to recover from wildfires that claimed lives and homes. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said earlier this year, “This is an issue that impacts the whole country, and we’re looking broadly at what we can do to reduce wildfire risk.”

The Department of the Interior recruits a workforce of thousands to manage wildland fire on public and Tribal lands across the country. Most of these people work in temporary appointments limited to six months. But if fires are no longer seasonal, should our workforce be?

The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a proposal to greatly expand and stabilize the wildland fire workforce. It calls for a $50 million increase to fund an additional 601 full-time equivalents*, converting many of our temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. This funding would provide over one million additional labor hours every year, enabling us to respond to wildfires during peak periods and complete active vegetation management projects like prescribed fires during times of low fire activity.

Expanding our cadre of permanent employees builds resiliency and sustainability into our programs. On average, temporary seasonal employees remain on the job two years, while career seasonal employees serve an average of 14 years. Constantly hiring and training new people is not only expensive, it robs us of the experienced, knowledgeable, senior firefighters we so desperately need.

Establishing career appointment positions also provides firefighters a reliable income and year-round benefits like access to healthcare and support organizations. Firefighters deserve these things given the tasks that lie ahead for all of us.

*Full-time equivalent (or FTE) is the annual number of “work years” produced by employees. A “work year” is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.


Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).

Administration requests 2% to 5% increases in fire budgets

Large cuts in research, and land management agencies in the Department of the Interior could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20% next fiscal year

ignite Trout Springs prescribed fire
A firefighter ignites the Trout Springs prescribed fire in Southwest Idaho. BLM photo.

(UPDATED at 11:02 am MST Feb. 11, 2020)

The administration has released its proposed budgets for fiscal year 2021 which begins October 1. If approved by Congress exactly as written, which is unlikely, the wildland fire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior would increase. The budget also calls for large reductions in research and the closure of two Forest Service Research Stations which would eliminate 287 positions.

Combined, the DOI agencies’ fire budgets would increase by 5%, while the FS fire budget could see a 2% bump.

The overall budget for the FS would remain about the same as this fiscal year, but the DOI agencies could see their overall budgets decrease by 3% to 20%. Below are the proposed changes in the total budgets (first) and full time equivalent staff years (second) for the FS and DOI agencies:

  • National Park Service: -14%, -5%
  • Fish & Wildlife Service: -3%, -0.4%
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs: -10%, -10%
  • Bureau of Land Management: -20%, +3%
  • Forest Service: 0%, -1.5%

These numbers are what the departments and agencies are suggesting for FY 2021 with the approval or at the direction of the White House. As the budget goes through the appropriation process it will change. But as Congress continues to turn over more of their authority to the President, we may see fewer changes this time.

You can read the FY 2021 Budget Briefs by the two Departments. “Brief” may not be the most accurate choice of words, with the DOI document reaching 237 pages and the Department of Agriculture’s totaling 112 pages.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 provided new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning this year, FY 2020 and continuing through 2027, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when Suppression funding has been exhausted. This budget authority is $2.35 billion in 2021 (of which $2.04 billion is allocated to the Forest Service) and increases by $100 million each year through 2027. In a busy fire year this will reduce the “borrowing” of funds from non-fire programs, and make fire programs more self-sufficient.

U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021
U.S. Forest Service proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

Both budget documents mention fuel management, active forest management, and timber salvage many times, reflecting what is often heard from White House personnel.

The Trump administration wants to close two research facilities, the Pacific Southwest Research Station (-$18.5 million) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (-$2.5 million). These cuts would eliminate 287 staff years. These closures would require the use of reduction in force authority, voluntary early retirement authority, and voluntary separation incentive authority. In addition the agency would eliminate recreation research (-$8.5 million) and wildlife and fish research (-$22.5 million).

The administration also wants to cut Forest and Rangeland Research by $55 million (18%) and State and Private Forestry by $129 million (37%). The FS description of State and Private Forestry: “provides technical and financial assistance to landowners and resource managers to help sustain the nation’s forests and grasslands, protect communities from wildland fire and restore fire-adapted ecosystems.”

A decrease of $8,000,000 would affect research in forest and grassland health, forest soils, air quality, hydrology, silviculture, and forest ecology, as well as in applied science to improve forest conditions, forest inventory and trend analysis, and wood product and market innovations.

The Joint Fire Science Program which has been zeroed out in the budget recommendations in the two previous years, but later funded by Congress, is listed to receive $3 million, which would be the same as it actually received in FY 2020.

The DOI has a $28 million “Plan to Transform the Firefighting Workforce,” a $28.0 million investment to hire more full-time professionals. The budget will also enable Interior to extend the duration of temporary hires and career seasonals as the program seeks administrative authority to extend the duration of temporary hires. Here is an excerpt from the budget proposal:

Interior’s ability to recruit and train full-time fire personnel has steadily declined, leaving the program excessively dependent on temporary personnel and contractors, a workforce model incompatible with a fire season that has now become a fire year, with larger, costlier, and more complex fires. The requested funding will strengthen DOI’s ability to maintain its initial-attack success rate and provide effective wildfire response throughout the fire year.

The FS, which contracts for all large air tankers, very large air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters, only mentioned aviation very briefly in the document, saying they will “…continue to right-size its aviation assets, evaluating the best mix of asset types and ownership models to provide the necessary aviation capability.” No details were given about the number or types of aircraft they plan to use for homeland security — fighting fires. In recent years, the meaningless term “right-size” has been synonymous with down-size.

Another document, FY 2021 Budget Justification, provides more details about aviation. On page 18 it indicates there were 18 Next Generation Air Tankers in FY 2020. But in the middle of the fire season and three weeks before the end of the fiscal year there were only 13 on exclusive use contracts. Occasionally additional Call When Needed air tankers were activated. On page 93 the Justification says the “robust aviation program” will include “up to 18 exclusive use air tankers”.  The “up to” modifier allows a great deal of obfuscation, again.

As this is written, there are only 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. It has been 499 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for another round of Next Gen air tankers Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required by February 14, 2019.

Having only 11 to 13 large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts is far fewer than is needed.

In some of the past Congressional budget hearings occasionally a Congressman or Senator has asked pointed questions about the fire budget, but only rarely are followup questions asked after the agency person gives a vague response.

DOI fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed Department of the Interior budget for Fiscal Year 2021.
Forest Service fire budget FY 2021
The administration’s proposed U.S. Forest Service budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

This article was edited Feb. 11, 2020 to include more details about aviation and cuts to research noted in the Budget Justification document.

California Governor’s proposed budget would add 677 firefighters

If approved, the budget would also establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center

S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera.

In his proposed $222 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year beginning July 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put forth several initiatives that if approved by the legislature could have a significant effect on wildland firefighting in the state. The budget refers to “the new normal fire conditions” and the need to mitigate long periods of fighting fires without respite.

Additional funding for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) would include $120 million in 2020-2021 and $150 ongoing for each of the following four years. This would enable the creation of 677 more positions phased in over five years resulting in operational flexibility through peak fire season and beyond, based on fire conditions. These positions would:

  1. Provide coverage behind personnel vacations, sick days, training, and during predicted weather events and major incidents.
  2. Provide a resource pool to staff additional engines on the shoulder seasons if it becomes necessary to increase the staffing on the existing 65 year-round engines.
  3. Add a fourth firefighter on a portion of CAL FIRE engines as fire conditions dictate.

The budget includes $9 million to establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center staffed by 22 positions to identify current wildfire threats and improve situational awareness of conditions in real-time.

The proposed budget sets aside $100 million for CAL FIRE and OES to administer a home hardening pilot program, with a focus on homes located in low-income communities in areas of high fire risk. The program would also fund 26 positions for defensible space inspections.

The budget approved for the 2019-2020 fiscal year included funds to operate the HC-130H aircraft that will be converted to air tankers, continue the replacement of the 12 aging Bell Super Huey Helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70I Firehawks, and operate 100 additional fire detection cameras.

Forest Service Chief testifies about proposed budget for next fiscal year

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen budget FY2020
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified about the White House’s proposed budget for FY2020 on May 15, 2019.

A Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, held a hearing May 15 to receive testimony from Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, about the administration’s proposed budget for next year, FY2020. In response to some of the questions related to recommended cuts by the White House, the Chief politely mentioned the fact that the administration ordered an overall five percent cut in the Forest Service budget.

One of the first topics of discussion were the large reductions in two programs. This fiscal year the Volunteer Fire Assistance program was funded at $11 million and State Fire Assistance program at $66 million. These programs provide assistance to states and local fire departments for wildland fire prevention, detection, and suppression. In Fiscal Year 2019, the programs were funded at $17 million and $81 million respectively.

I made two of the three clips below to highlight the sections when the committee was discussing fire-related issues. In the first one Chief Christiansen is asked to defend the cuts in the Volunteer Fire Assistance and State Fire Assistance programs.

In the next Clip Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asks Forest Service Chief Christiansen if the proposed funding amounts for next fiscal year can help restore forests and reduce the need for fire suppression.

Senator Steve Daines of Montana asks Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen if more fuel breaks should be constructed along roads.

In an April 9 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee other issues were discussed about funding for next fiscal year.

Senate committee discusses Forest Service budget issues with the Chief

5% reduction in USFS budget, fuel reduction funds, air tanker study, CFLRP, and LWCF

CL 415 on Colby Fire
CL-415 on the Colby Fire near Glendora, California, January, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

In addition to grilling the Chief of the Forest Service about hostile workplaces, several other issues were covered in a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A video recording of the hearing is available at the Committee’s website. It begins at 19:48.

At 56:30 in the video Washington Senator Maria Cantwell asked Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about the $545 million that was appropriated for fuel management in the recent omnibus legislation but was not mentioned in the administration’s proposed budget for FY 2020 which begins October 1. The Senator asked for assurances that the funds would still be available and would be used for that purpose. The Chief would not commit to the funds still being available, saying, “We will use whatever resources are given to the agency”.

The Chief reminded the Senator that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Senator Cantwell also mentioned very briefly at 59:00 in the video the availability of CL-415 water scooping air tankers but the issue was not discussed. The Forest Service, even though funds are available and a vendor offered the aircraft at a greatly reduced rate this year in a meeting with Chief Christiansen and Fire Director Shawna Legarza (according to our sources), the agency does not plan to have any scoopers on exclusive use contracts for the second year in a row. Historically the FS does not hold scoopers in high esteem even though they are used extensively in Canada and Europe. The 2012 Rand Study, which the agency attempted to keep secret (and did so successfully for two years), recommended a heavy emphasis on water-scooping air tankers and fewer conventional air tankers, which would have been a monumental shift in the paradigm.

Senator Murkowski said (at 1:39:30 in the video) that during a hearing a year ago the committee was told that results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study would be released “soon”. The study, launched in 2012, is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

However, to date no detailed reports have been released from the AFUE.

The Senator asked about the results of the study, now entering its eighth year. The data is being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.

Chief Christiansen, referring to the lack of any detailed results being released, said, “I absolutely share your concern and your question….. I am low on patience as well, Senator. This is a complex and labor intensive endeavor.”

Senator Murkowski: “But should it really require seven years to get a report like this?”

Chief Christiansen: “To have enough, when you have to take these assessment teams and have to be on the fire scene and to get enough data to get what the trend line is, it does take some time.”

The Chief then referred to a very small amount of preliminary data that was released in a two-page document in March which in a vague manner referred to the probability of success of direct vs. indirect attack by aircraft. This was was reported by Fire Aviation April 8, 2019.

Senator Murkowski asked the Chief to have more details from the AFUE study when the Committee holds their annual fire outlook hearing in about a month.

Since after seven years the Forest Service has not released any significant data about the study, a person has to wonder what have they found that is so embarrassing, controversial, or perhaps critical of specific models of aircraft, retardant products, or vendors?

Some people think the Forest Service will never release the full results of the AFUE study.

The Committee might have to subpoena the data.

Later in the hearing (at 1:43:30) Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is Bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of Bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich expressed concern that the Administration intends for both the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (part of the Forest Service) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (under the Department of the Interior) to be unfunded beginning in October. Again, the Chief mentioned that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Referring to the fact that the “fire fix” has reduced the necessity for the Forest Service to borrow funds from unrelated accounts to pay for fire suppression, Senator Heinrich said, “We’re giving you the tools, you’re not using the tools we are giving you.”

President proposes cuts to fire research and a small increase in fuels treatments

The President’s proposed budget for FY 2020 will likely be heavily modified by Congress

The Trump administration has released their recommendations for the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2020 which begins October 1, 2019. The Constitution gives sole authority for appropriating taxpayer funds to Congress, and it is certain that the 535 elected members of the House and Senate will heavily modify the proposal. However, Mr. Trump has an unusual amount of influence on how the members of his party in Congress vote, so it may not be a complete waste of time to quickly review the Administration’s proposed budget for wildland fire to see along what lines the White House is thinking.

I looked at the President’s FY 2020 recommendations for the U.S. Forest Service and the four major land management agencies in the Department of the Interior — National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs  — with the numbers for the DOI agencies lumped. I compared the proposed numbers with the FY 2018 budget. There was no approved budget for this year, FY 2019. Instead, the agencies had to make do with a series of continuing resolutions that basically maintained the same amounts as in FY 2018.

The charts below are from the information released by the Administration (at the links above).

President's FY 2020 proposed budget U.S. Forest Service
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for the U.S. Forest Service.

Previous budget recommendations from the Administration broke it down in detail, listing the numbers of firefighters, engines, dozers, hot shot crews, and aircraft that would be funded. This latest document does not have that level of detail.

There is not much change in Preparedness, the category that covers existing firefighting capability and funds all base-8 salary costs for firefighters. It remains the same in the DOI, and the FS would see a 5 percent increase.

For the Suppression category, actually putting out or managing fires, the rules will change in FY 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 kicks in and provides new budget authority to fight wildfires, known as the “fire fix.” Beginning in FY 2020 and through FY 2028, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will have new budget authority available when standard fire Suppression funding has been exhausted in a busy fire year. This starts with an additional $2.25 billion in FY 2020 and increases by $100 million each year through FY 2027. These additional funds are to be allocated to both the FS and the DOI as needed. This adds some budget stability and should help mitigate  the “fire borrowing” problem, where unrelated programs see their funds moved over to fire Suppression.

Below: proposal for the DOI (millions of dollars):

presidents proposed budget DOI fire
President’s FY 2020 proposed budget for wildland firefighting in the Department of the Interior.

Science and research would take a big hit under the President’s recommendation, with Forest Service Research being cut by 14 percent while the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) would be completely unfunded. Shuttering the JFSP has been talked about for a couple of years, with the administration saying the funds would be moved over to general Research — which is being reduced.

The Hazardous Fuels allocations in the DOI and FS would both see a modest 5 percent increase, which may seem surprisingly small since the President has ranted several times about “cleaning up the forests” in California. The combined rates of inflation in 2017 and 2018 were 4.5 percent.

Funds allocated for building or improving Fire Facilities in the DOI would be reduced from $18 million to zero.

Outside Magazine breaks down the total budget proposal for the National Park Service.