Fire funding up nearly 25 percent in President’s 2024 budget

Federal wildland fire funding may increase by nearly 25 percent in 2024 if President Biden’s budget priorities are adopted by Congress. The budget, released March 9, reflects firefighters’ concerns and a rising political commitment to face increasingly complex wildfire conditions.

Initiatives include a long-term fix for wildland firefighter pay equity, an 8 percent increase in the number of federal and Tribal firefighters, and expansion of prior commitments to interagency response and research, fuels management, aviation and remote sensing initiatives, and community-based prevention programs.

TOMB White House Budget Fact Sheet 2023-03-09he summary fact sheet released by the Office of Management and Budget has a single mention of wildfires, woven into a $24 billion investment to “build communities’ resilience to floods, wildfires, storms, extreme heat, and drought brought on by climate change.”

Wildfire and wildland fire management funding in the 2024 budget appear in joint and specific releases by the lead agencies with federal wildland fire management responsibilities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposes a 28 percent increase and the Department of the Interior proposes a 21 percent increase over 2023 funding.

News releases from both departments note the priority for funding the proposed raises in base pay for federal and tribal firefighters. The budget summary notes that funding will pay for fuels as well as fire management. The proposal calls for “More than $4.2 billion for the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior wildland fire and hazardous fuels management” that will “implement comprehensive workforce reform, including increased firefighter pay, additional firefighting capacity, enhanced mental and physical health support, and improved housing options for firefighters.”

As detailed in a March 9 USDA release, “The budget includes increases of $180 million for USDA and $72 million for DOI to raise base pay for Federal and Tribal wildland firefighters, with additional premium pay costs covered out of funding requested for suppression operations.” The USFS Explanatory Notes page for the 2024 budget includes additional details and annual performance indicators. One indicator of note for 2022: on page 233, it’s reported that nearly 3 million acres of fuels treatments were accomplished, with 57 percent using prescribed fire despite a prescribed fire pause (followed by the release of the National Prescribed Fire Program Review) put in place after prescribed fire escapes in New Mexico. The 2024 budget increases hazardous fuels targets to 4 million acres.

The DOI release expands on the appropriations request: “The President’s 2024 Budget proposes legislation and funding to implement significant reforms to increase the Nation’s investment in the wildland fire management workforce. The cornerstone of these long-term reforms is a permanent increase in pay. The Administration proposes legislation to establish a special base rate salary table for wildland firefighters, create a new premium pay category that provides some additional compensation for all hours a wildland fire responder is mobilized on an incident, and establish a streamlined pay cap that provides waiver authority to the Secretary using specific criteria.”

The pay-raise focus has garnered support from the National Federation of Federal Employees. In a March 13 release, NFFE President Randy Erwin praises President Biden for “taking this critical step in addressing the wildfire crisis and improving the lives of federal wildland firefighters across the country.”

Erwin noted that pay reforms will “help recruit and retain skilled personnel … While there is still much work to do to ensure our wildland firefighting workforce has the resources to be sustainable in the coming years, I am proud that our members are seeing results from their advocacy.”

Approval of the budget faces the challenge of a divided Congress. A Republican-majority House may push back against the overall budget, resulting in a flat-lined continuing resolution in place of an approved 2024 budget. Additionally, implementation may be shaped by legislation that may result from reports and recommendations of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. The commission’s final call for recommendations from the public (including firefighters) closes on March 22.

California’s Proposition 30 could add up to $1 billion to CAL FIRE’s budget

CAL FIRE budget

On November 8 California voters could approve a proposition that would add up to $1 billion to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection budget.

Proposition 30 would create an additional 1.75% state tax on personal income above $2 million that would used for zero-emission vehicle subsidies; zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging stations; and wildfire suppression and prevention programs.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office expects the measure would would raise $3.5 billion to $5 billion annually, growing over time. Of that, 20 percent would be spent on wildfire response and prevention activities. In general, the state would have to prioritize spending to hire, train, and retain state firefighters. The rest of the money could be used for other wildfire response and prevention activities. The proposition would increase state funding for wildfire response and prevention activities by $700 million to $1 billion annually. The state typically spends about $2 billion to $4 billion annually on wildfire activities, mostly on firefighting.

The other 80 percent of the additional revenue would be used to help households, businesses, and governments pay for part of the cost of new passenger zero emission vehicles, as well as electric vehicle charging stations at apartment buildings, single-family homes, and public locations.

In other news about California’s spending on its wildfire program, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed $800 million over the next two years to implement various efforts to improve forest health and make communities more resilient to future wildfires.

CAL FIRE to add more firefighters, engines, dozers, and helicopters

Will add 1,503 personnel, 27 engines, 4 helicopters, and 10 dozers

CAL FIRE dozer and transport
File photo of a new dozer and transport for the Nevada Yuba Placer Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. CAL FIRE photo, March, 2019.

The new budget for California signed into law June 30 by Governor Gavin Newsom includes a massive increase for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2022.

The budget authorizes 11,293 positions, a 13 percent increase of 1,503 personnel. 

To add to the 12 new S70i Firehawk helicopters that were funded a couple of years ago, they will spend $99 million to purchase an additional 4 to help maintain continuous flight operations during critical fire weather conditions when frontline helicopters are due for maintenance. 

In addition, $45 million is set aside annually for the next three years to secure exclusive use (EU) contracts for 10 additional helitankers while awaiting the federal delivery of seven former Coast Guard C-130 air tankers that over the last 9 years have been waiting for the US Air Force to convert them into retardant-dropping air tankers.

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler told Fire Aviation in March that the incorporation of the seven former Coast Guard C-130 aircraft into the state’s air tanker fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This is in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement in the project. He said they had hoped to see some of the C-130s flying on fires this year. CAL FIRE is working with the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the contractor who will install the retardant delivery system, Coulson Aviation.

California Conservation Corps (CCC) and California Military Department (CMD) Hand Crews 
Appropriated is $104 million and 238 positions starting now, and $50 million and 270 positions phased in over five years. Eight additional year-round hand crews will be added and 16 seasonal hand crews will be converted to year-round.

Four existing seasonal CAL FIRE/CCC hand crews will convert to year-round staffing in July 2022 and the personnel for the remaining two transitioned seasonal hand crews will be hired beginning January 2023. On these hand crews, two temporary Fire Captains (FC) per hand crew are replaced by three permanent FCs and three new FAEs are added to each hand crew. In total, 18 FCs and 18 FAEs will staff all six hand crews.

Ten existing seasonal CMD hand crews will be converted to year-round and four year-round CMD hand crews will be added for statewide response and fuels reduction projects.

Engines and Dozers
$36 million will be used to acquire surge capacity fire engines and bulldozers. This will add two additional engines in each of the 21 Units and six contract counties, plus 10 additional bulldozers. These resources will be available to be staffed during times of resource drawdown and critical fire activity.

Approximately $9 million will be used to hire support staff for the Firehawk program and positions for the contract EU helicopters,

July through December Fire Protection Augmentation
One-time funding of $83.1 million General Fund is available to augment fire protection resources from July through December 2022 given trends associated with climate change and current drought conditions, increasing fire severity and size, and declining inmate camp populations. It will be used to extend the staffing of 16 additional CAL FIRE firefighter hand crews through December 2022, plus support staff and training.

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

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.

BC Wildfire Service moves to a year-round workforce

The agency employs approximately 1,000 wildland firefighters

BC Wildfire Service 2022 budget
Minister of Finance Selina Robinson presented the 2022 budget for British Columbia on February 22, 2022.

The government of British Columbia intends to move to a year-round workforce for the Wildfire Service in the next fiscal year that begins April 1. In a February 22 presentation Minister of Finance Selina Robinson said, “$145 million in new funding will strengthen B.C.’s emergency management and wildfire services.  The BC Wildfire Service will shift from a reactive to a proactive approach by moving to a year-round workforce that will deliver all pillars of emergency management: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.”

The BC Wildfire Service employs approximately 1,000 wildland firefighters each year.

The new budget will allow improvements of the public alerting system for wildfires and help support people and communities during climate-related events.

An additional $98 million will fund wildfire prevention work and maintain forest service roads used to respond to forest fires.

The budget also includes $210 million to support community climate change preparedness and emergency management, including through the FireSmart program, the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, and Indigenous-led emergency management priorities. It will support communities and First Nations to build more resilient dikes and map floodplains.

Department of Interior releases spending plan for Infrastructure funds

DOI Infrastructure spending 2022-2026
Department of the Interior’s outline for spending funds appropriated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for wildland fire, fiscal years 2022 through 2026.

The Department of the Interior (DOI), as required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden on November 15, 2021, has released an outline for spending the $1.5 billion that the legislation appropriated to be used by the Department for wildland fire. Four agencies within the DOI have significant wildland fire responsibilities: Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and bureau of Indian Affairs.

In January the US Forest Service announced how it will spend the $2.42 billion the agency will receive, and also here in February.

Before the bill was passed, we compiled a summary of the legislation’s provisions that relate to wildland fire.

Below are excerpts from a 13-page DOI document that explains how the new funds will be used.

…The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides a total of nearly $1.5 billion to DOI for the Wildland Fire Management (WFM) programs and activities shown in the table below. Specifically, Division J appropriates $1,458,000,000. This funding is provided as emergency appropriations and is available for obligation until expended. Division J further specifies in which fiscal year (FY) amounts become available for obligation from FY 2022-FY 2026, as reflected in the table [above]. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service received complementary appropriations for wildland fire management, and the two agencies are collaborating on and coordinating implementation of the BIL.

Preparedness – Workforce Reform: The BIL provides $120.0 million over five years to increase the compensation of Federal wildland firefighters, convert more firefighters to permanent, year-round employment, and support the health and safety of firefighters. The law directs DOI and USDA Forest Service to increase compensation for firefighters in some geographic areas and to work with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish a wildland firefighter occupational series. Further, DOI and USDA Forest Service are required to establish mitigation strategies for line-of-duty environmental hazards and firefighters’ mental health.

Other Preparedness: The law provides another $125.0 million over five years for other activities that will increase America’s preparedness to respond to wildland fire. They include support for workshops and training for firefighters, equipment, satellite detection and reporting, and wildfire detection and monitoring, and a pilot program to support Tribal Nations and local governments in wildfire response.

Fuels Management: The law provides $878.0 million over five years to plan and implement fuels management. This work will protect vulnerable communities from wildfire while preparing our natural landscapes for a changing climate. The law’s funding is intended to support mechanical thinning; prescribed fire; employing contractors, young adults, veterans, and Tribal Nations’ youth; and other fuels management.

Burned Area Rehabilitation: The law provides $325.0 million over five years to complete post-fire restoration activities. These actions help mitigate the damaging effects of wildfires and set landscapes on a path towards natural recovery and climate resilience.

Joint Fire Science Program: The law provides $10.0 million to DOI over five years to study and research wildland fire through the Joint Fire Science Program, which DOI and USDA jointly administer. The program will use the funding to conduct research on climate change interactions, smoke management concerns, impacts on diverse populations, and management actions that will make ecosystems more wildfire and drought resistant.

Funding for the Office of the Inspector General and Administration: The BIL requires that 0.5 percent of the appropriations be transferred to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and provides that DOI may use up to 3.0 percent of the appropriations for “salaries, expenses, and administration.” These amounts are reflected in the table on page 3.

Timeline for Implementation – FY 2022 and Later Years

The law establishes several deadlines that will serve as milestones for implementation, including the following:

  • Beginning October 1, 2021 (no deadline for completion set in the law): DOI and USDA Forest Service will:
    • Seek to convert not fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighting positions to permanent year-round positions that are full-time and reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land not fewer than 800 hours per year (each position); and
    • Increase the salary of wildland firefighters by an amount equal to the lesser of $20,000 or 50 percent of base salary if the DOI and USDA Secretaries and the OPM Director determine that a position is in a geographic area where it is difficult to recruit or retain Federal wildland firefighters.
  • Mid-December 2021: DOI, USDA, and DHS (through the FEMA Administrator) jointly established a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to (1) study and make recommendations on preventing, mitigating, suppressing, and managing wildland fires, and (2) rehabilitate land devastated by wildfires. The Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the FEMA Administrator serve as co-chairs, and other Commission members will be appointed. The Commission will issue a report within one year of the first Commission meeting.
  • March 14, 2022 (120 days post-enactment): DOI and USDA Forest Service will establish a five-year monitoring, maintenance, and treatment plan.
  • May 13, 2022 (180 days post-enactment): DOI and USDA Forest Service will develop a distinct wildland firefighter job series, in coordination with OPM.
  • Annually December 31, 2022-2026: DOI and USDA Forest Service will submit a report to Congress on the number of acres of land on which projects carried out using the BIL’s treatment funds improved the Fire Regime Condition Class of the land.
  • October 1, 2022: DOI and USDA Forest Service will develop and adhere to recommendations for mitigation strategies for wildland firefighters to minimize exposure to line-of-duty environmental hazards; and to recognize and address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care.
  • September 30, 2027: By no later than this date, DOI and USDA will conduct restoration treatments and improve the Fire Regime Condition Class of 10,000,000 acres of Federal or Tribal lands identified as having a very high wildfire risk potential and that are located in the wildland-urban interface or a public drinking water source area.

Workforce and Compensation

  • Workforce Reform: The BIL provides DOI a total of $120.0 million over five years for firefighters’ compensation, position conversions, and health and safety. DOI will work with USDA Forest Service on strategies to increase firefighters’ compensation; convert hundreds more firefighters to full-year, permanent positions; and address firefighters’ mental health needs.
  • Workforce Assessment: Human capital is the most important investment for effective wildland fire management. Prior to enactment of the BIL, DOI decided to undertake an assessment of the wildland fire management workforce. This assessment will be valuable in implementing the BIL. DOI’s Federal Consulting Group, which is assisting the WFM program, has contracted for a Wildland Fire Workforce Assessment that will serve as baseline information about wildland fire personnel, including geographic location, pay and compensation, diversity, classification, and other factors to inform the determination of sustainable and effective workforce capacity needs. The assessment will be delivered to DOI by May 31, 2022.
  • Coordinated, Interagency Workforce Working Groups: To lead toward the establishment of a wildland firefighter series (deadline 180 days: May 13, 2022), DOI is participating in interagency working groups with OPM and USDA Forest Service to review the current classification series of wildland fire personnel. In addition to position classification and job series, these groups are also evaluating pay, compensation, and other benefits.
  • Compensation Increases for 2022: On June 30, 2021, the President announced compensation increases and retention incentives for the lowest-paid wildland firefighters. These increases were implemented over the summer for a six-month period covering through December 31, 2021. For 2022, DOI and USDA Forest Service issued guidance that no firefighter should be hired at a salary of less than $15 per hour. (Subsequently, OPM issued guidance that applies to positions governmentwide.) DOI and USDA Forest Service are coordinating with OPM on an analysis to propose a special rate request for firefighters.
  • Pre-Planning Fire Response Workshops and Training: DOI and USDA Forest Service, in coordination with stakeholders, will hold workshops and training for staff, non-Federal firefighters, and Tribal fire crews to effectively respond to wildfires and assist in increasing the pace and scale of vegetation treatments. The plan is for USDA Forest Service to lead on pre-planning fire response workshops that develop potential operational delineations and select potential control locations, and for DOI to lead on wildland firefighter training.

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