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.

Senate holds hearing about powerline-caused wildfires

PG&E CEO says preemptive power shut offs during periods of high fire danger in California are likely to continue “for some period of time”

Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019
Witnesses at the Congressional hearing December 19, 2019. L to R: Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M)

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability, efforts to mitigate wildfire risk, and how to increase grid resiliency.

The five witnesses at the hearing were Bill Johnson (PG&E), Michael Wara (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), Scott Corwin (Northwest Public Power Association), Carl Imhoff (USFS Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), and Dr. B. Don Russell (Texas A&M).

The Senators and witnesses talked about Pacific Gas and Electric’s bankruptcy following the fires caused by their system, the future of preemptive power shutoffs during periods of high fire danger, and two new advances in technology that could help prevent some fires that are caused by power lines.

Dr. B. Don Russel, a professor at Texas A & M, told the committee about distribution fault anticipation technology developed at his university that uses intelligent algorithms to continually monitor electric circuits to detect the very earliest stages of failing devices and missed operations. The concept is simple, he said.  You find and fix it before the catastrophic failure causes a fire or an outage.  Dr.  Russel repeatedly advocated the adoption of this system.

San Diego Gas and Electric’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

Hearing Senate power line fires
Screenshot from the video.

Bill Johnson became the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric about 8 months ago about the time the company began going into bankruptcy. Senator Murkowski asked him how much longer residents in California would continue to be affected by the electricity being shut off during periods of high fire danger.

Mr. Johnson said San Diego Gas & Electric is still doing Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) in Southern California during periods of high fire danger 12 years after their power lines started multiple large fires in 2007, but the shutoffs are “surgical” and very localized. He said “[I]n Northern California it would take us probably five years to get to the point where we can largely eliminate this tool… So I think over the next couple of years you’ll see a progression of shorter, fewer PSPS events. But the climate change and the weather change is dramatic enough that I don’t think we will see the end of it for some period of time.”

Dr. Michael Wara discussed the effect of PSPS on residents:

The use of PSPSs has both prevented wildfire and caused widespread disruption to families and businesses, especially in Northern California. PSPS events, though they do dramatically improve safety, are likely very costly to the health of the economy, especially in smaller communities. My best estimate, using the Interruption Cost Estimator tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory indicates that PG&E PSPS events in 2019 cost customers more than $10 billion – that’s 0.3% of gross state product or 10% of overall economic growth this year in California.

In October we wrote about the effects of PSPSs on California residents.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Johnson’s prepared testimony about PG&E:

PG&E is deeply sorry for the role our equipment had in those fires and the losses that occurred because of them. And we’re taking action to prevent it ever happening again.

And today we’re taking that work a step further by increasing vegetation management in the high risk areas, incorporating analytical and predictive capabilities, and expanding the scope and intrusiveness of our inspection processes.

We deployed 600 weather stations and 130 high resolution cameras across our  service areas to bolster situational awareness and emergency response. We’re using satellite data and modeling techniques to predict wildfire spread and behavior. And we’re hardening our system in those areas where the fire threat is highest by installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered line, as well as undergrounding.

And this year we took the unprecedented step of intentionally turning off the power for safety during a string of severe wind events where we saw up to 100  mile an hour winds on shore in Northern California. And this decision affected millions of our customers,  caused them disruption and hardship even if it succeeded in protecting human life.

We are operating on all fronts to make the system safer and more resilient.

You can watch a video of the entire hearing. It is one hour and 35 minutes, not counting the wait for it to begin at 17:57.

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.

Forest Service now offers one-year contracts for air tankers

This may be a result of inadequate funding for firefighting by the Administration and Congress

(Originally published at Fire Aviation.)

number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government, 2000 through 2018, at the beginning of the wildfire season.

The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.

BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire
BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire in Oregon, June 21, 2014. Photo by Chris Friend, ODF.

There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.

The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.

In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.

Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba just awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

(The two charts below were updated February 2, 2019)

Wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018

In the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 101 acres.

1985-2018 wildfires average size decade

More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduces the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.

For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.

In addition to the reduction in air tankers, the largest and most efficient helicopters, Type 1’s such as the Air Crane, were cut two years ago by 18 percent, from 34 to 28.

In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.

It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.

What can be done?

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The only way this will happen is if the President and Congress realize the urgency and pass and sign the legislation. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

wildfires climate change
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.