California Governor proposes hiring 16 additional firefighting crews

And, $1 billion for forest health and reduction of fire risk

Map smoke Apple Fire
Satellite photo by GOES-17 of smoke created by the Apple Fire in southern California at 7 a.m. PDT August 2, 2020. NASA.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. Governor Gavin Newsom also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with Sikorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into the fleet in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

Research

The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

Congress passes funding bill for federal firefighting agencies

The legislation pushes, again, for the implementation of tracking system for fire resources, due by March 12, 2021

Washington, DC
Washington, DC

Both houses of Congress passed a 5,600-page omnibus spending package Monday night to fund numerous programs that included the Departments of Agriculture and Interior along with COVID-19 relief. It the bill is signed by the President it will fund the agencies during the fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.

There are no major changes in the appropriations for wildland fire activities that employ approximately 15,000 forestry and range technicians whose primary duties are fighting wildfires. But there are some interesting issues that were highlighted, not in the text of the bill itself, but in the “explanatory statement” that elaborates on Congress’ oversight of the fire programs in the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Firefighting Technologies

Congress reminded the five agencies that the John D. Dingell, Jr. Natural Resources Management Act that passed overwhelmingly in both houses almost two years ago requires that by March 12, 2021 they develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources. According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell at the time, by the 2021 fire season all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators. By September 8, 2019 they were also supposed to develop plans for providing real-time maps of the location of fires.

Apparently worried that the five agencies may be dragging their feet in following the requirements in the bill (which became law), Congress very, very politely issued a reminder in the explanatory statement:

The Committee encourages increased investment in these technologies within the funds provided for Forest and Rangeland Research and for preparedness activities in Wildland Fire Management. The Committee encourages prioritizing the use of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions, including mobile MESH networking technology, that provide situational awareness and interoperable communications between federal, state, and local firefighting agencies.

Longer contracts for firefighting aircraft?

The explanatory statement has a surprisingly lengthy section that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that lays out the considerations of awarding 10-year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities. If the President signs the bill today, the report would be due March 22, 2021.

The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

Fire Aviation has more details about the possibility of longer contracts.

Move the Forest Service Fire and Aviation section out of State and Private Forestry

More than half of the entire budget of the Forest Service goes to Fire and Aviation Management (FAM). But if you were trying to find FAM on the agency’s organization chart, it may take a while.

Organization Chart, USFS
Organization Chart, US Forest Service. (From USFS website, December, 22, 2020)

The first version of the appropriations bill introduced in the Senate required that FAM be moved out of State and Private Forestry and put in it’s own branch, with the Director of FAM becoming a Deputy Chief:

Commensurate with the modernized budget structure included in this Act, the Forest Service shall realign its Deputy Chief Areas to conform to the appropriations provided herein, including the creation of a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation to administer the Wildland Fire Management appropriation, within one year of enactment of this Act.

In November the National Association of State Foresters wrote a letter to the House and Senate appropriations leadership opposing the concept:

While we agree more must be done to minimize the threat of catastrophic wildfire, we are concerned that establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation would divert valuable resources  from land management activities that reduce the threat of wildfire, only to establish additional bureaucracy around wildfire suppression… Establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation is tantamount to building a “fire agency” and therefore contrary to the intent of the “Wildfire Funding Fix,” which Congress passed to free up funding for more active forest management.

The final version of the bill that passed Monday night eased off on that requirement, suggesting the agency just think about it:

The Committees are interested in data and recommendations relating to any changes that could be made to improve the representation of Wildland Fire Management leadership under this structure and the potential creation of a new Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. The Committees recognize that wildland fire related activities touch every aspect of the agency and believe that providing the fire function with a senior leadership role at the Service will improve coordination and better represents the role fire plays in agency budgeting and decision making.

Last week before the new language became available Monday night I checked with some fire management folks, asking their thoughts about the requirement, at the time, of promoting FAM to be their own branch with a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. Here are their responses, in some cases edited for brevity:

Tom Harbour, former Director of FAM for the Forest Service:

The language is controversial. Specific organizational language like this is not popular with any federal organization. Based on just budget, the FAM program has been “Deputy Chief eligible” for a couple decades, but more goes into significant organization change decisions than budget. Five different Chiefs (Bosworth, Kimball, Tidwell, Tooke, Christiansen) have had the budget facts in front of them and have decided NOT to make a change.  The most obvious immediate question is what would happen with S&PF programs, and what happens with the important relationships with State Foresters?

Greg Greenhoe, former Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Northern Region, USFS

I really don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion. I can understand the concern of the State Foresters with Fire Management leaving State and Private. But even when I was still working I always thought it was strange that Fire was under State and Private. I can see that some folks would be concerned that the largest single budgeted function in the FS doesn’t have its own Deputy Chief.

Kelly Martin, former Fire Chief of Yosemite National Park, National Park Service

Due to the fact that the wildland fire budget for suppression and preparedness is an overwhelming part of the entire USFS budget, this new proposed Deputy Chief of Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) position reporting directly to the Chief of the USFS leads to better accountability between the Chief of the USFS and the Fire and Aviation program.  Much needed modern reforms and developing a “National Fire Plan 2.0” will need to be closely linked between the Chief of the USFS and the Dep Chief of FAM. State and Private Forestry will continue to be an important part of the USFS overall program with or without the Fire Director working directly for the Deputy Chief of SPF.

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.