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.

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.

Department of the Interior collaborated on 2,500 fuel treatment projects last year

s2t airtanker holy fire
An S-2T air tanker comes out of the smoke to drop retardant near the communication towers on Santiago Peak in Southern California August 8, 2018 as the Holy Fire approaches. HPWREN image.

Opinion: by David L. Bernhardt, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior

Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst on record as more than 58,000 wildfires burned more than 8.8 million acres across the United States. Nearly 26,000 structures were destroyed — more than double the previous annual record — and 19 valiant members of America’s firefighting community lost their lives.

Across the country, more than 98 million people live within or adjacent to lands susceptible to wildfires. As more and more people move into or near wildfire-prone areas, it’s paramount that federal, state, and local partners collaborate on ways to effectively protect local communities.

At the Department of the Interior, we have made wildfire preparedness a top priority. Our national wildfire reduction strategy is guided by President Donald Trump’s executive order and furthered by my order. These orders guide the active management of our lands and forests and encourage managers to think about reducing fire risk in their land management actions. Implementation of both orders is a priority for reducing the risks of deadly and destructive wildfires.

This coordinated framework will help ensure the protection of people, communities, and natural resources. We are also harnessing state of the art technology and robust intergovernmental partnerships to keep our communities and wildlands safe from the kinds of devastation we have seen in the past, but this is no easy task.

Our Wildland Fire Management program uses innovative, informed approaches to minimize wildfires. While topography, terrain, and weather are often external factors that spark a wildfire, we can control the fuel that allows fires to spread, as excess vegetation leads to increased wildfire frequency, size and intensity.

Vegetation treatment methods include thinning and timber harvest; controlled burns — quite literally, fighting fire with fire — chemical treatments; targeted grazing; mechanical removal; mowing or cutting; logging; and fuel breaks, or gaps in vegetation that limit the spreading of fires. When a wildfire burns into a fuel break, the flame lengths decrease, and its progress slows, making it safer and easier for firefighters to control.

We’ve used all of these methods to try to mitigate the damage caused by wildfires, as we collaborated with federal, tribal, state and local partners on nearly 2,500 treatment projects over the past year. Leveraging these partnerships, we removed excess burnable vegetation on more than 1.2 million acres of Interior and tribally administered lands, which is 17 percent more treated acreage than in 2016, to reduce the intensity and frequency of fires in high-risk areas. Helping lead these efforts, we conducted 1,552 drone missions on 200 individual wildfires, more than double those of the previous year.

This wildfire season, we have ramped up our efforts and mobilized an array of resources by land and air.

By the season’s end, the department will have deployed approximately 4,500 firefighting personnel — including an all-female fire crew that battled blazes in Alaska — 500 tribal firefighters, 151 smokejumpers, 18 interagency hotshot crews and four tribal hotshot crews. Wildland firefighters have at their disposal more than 600 pieces of specialized equipment, including engines, water tenders and dozers. Aviation assets also continue to play a critical role in efforts to manage wildfires, as the department employs 23 single-engine air tankers, six water scoopers, helicopters, and drones.

We are using everything at our disposal to protect Western communities from wildfires; and, with the help from the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act’s provisions on wildfire technology modernization, we will continue to use advanced and emerging technologies to stay on the cutting edge of firefighting and fire prevention. The department is also actively harnessing state-of-the-art technology to improve real-time communication and tracking for incidents to increase firefighter safety.

In Colorado, more than 27,000 acres of land will be treated by the end of this fiscal year. One specific project completed already by the Bureau of Land Management is a 286-acre prescribed fire near Bayfield called the Rabbit Mountain Project Prescribed Fire. It was completed to restore and maintain a healthy ecosystem and reduce the risk of wildfire to private lands in the area. The prescribed fire will reinvigorate grasses, forbs, and shrubs and improve deer and elk habitat. Numerous other areas around the state are being treated, in addition to the active wildfire management that is ongoing to contain and extinguish current wildfires.

Under President Trump’s leadership, the Department of the Interior is pursuing innovative and effective wildfire management efforts, and we have made significant progress so far to deliver on the president’s goals for wildfire prevention and treatment. More work can and must be done, and we will continue to find new and improved ways to keep our people, communities, lands and resources safe and secure — now and in the years ahead.

President’s proposed FY18 wildland fire budget includes some reductions

Most wildland fire functions in Fiscal Year 2018 would remain flat or reduced a small amount if the President’s proposed budget is enacted by Congress.

Above: The President’s proposal for funding wildland fire in the U.S. Forest Service in Fiscal Year 2018. Source: USFS.

(Originally published at 5:40 p.m. MST November 9, 2017)

While the federal government keeps throwing additional billions of dollars at the Department of Defense to fund our adventures in countries on the other side of the world, the budget for the war against wildfire in our homeland would be cut in some areas while most functions would remain flat if the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 is approved by Congress.

In May the President proposed budgets for the Forest Service and the four primary land management agencies in the Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  However, Congress, as usual, has not finalized appropriations bills for these agencies for Fiscal Year 2018 which started October 1, 2017. The House passed a version in September, but the Senate has yet to take meaningful action.

The agencies have been operating on a continuing resolution (CR) which expires December 8. It is likely that some kind of showdown will happen around that date, with the worst case scenario being a government shutdown. Or, they could keep passing successive CRs for the rest of the fiscal year, which would lock the funding into the FY 2017 numbers. Of course, CRs were in effect for all of FY 2017. Apparently our elected Senators and Representatives think they have better things to do than fund the government.

If Congress actually does pass a funding bill for these land management agencies, the line by line details and numbers will most likely be different from the President’s proposals, but below we spell out what the administration would like to see happen this fiscal year that started October 1.

Forest Service

In the FS as a whole, the President would like to reduce the number of employees (jobs), cutting the number of staff-years by 5.7 percent. Wildland fire personnel in the FS would remain the same — a total of 10,000, including 67 Interagency Hotshot Crews, 7,940 other firefighters, 320 Smokejumpers, and 400 Fire Prevention Technicians. Fire Suppression would be funded at the 10-year average.

The exact numbers and trends are difficult to track because the Base 8 (the first 8 hours of a firefighter’s regular work day) will now be paid out of Preparedness rather than Suppression. And funds for Hazardous Fuels are shifting from fire funding to National Forest System accounts.

In 2017 the FS reduced the number of the largest helicopters, Type 1, from 34 to 28. The President aims to retain that smaller number. Type 2 and 3 helicopters would remain the same at 33 and 46, respectively. The two water-scooping air tankers in the FS would be eliminated completely, while they add one Single Engine Air Tanker, up from zero in 2017. The FS looked at the two years they had the scoopers as an experiment, even though they have been used successfully in Canada, France, Greece, and Spain for decades.

In 2002 the FS had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. In 2017 they had 20, consisting of 16 Next Generation air tankers and 4 Legacy P2V’s. With the 50+ year old P2V’s now retired, the agency expects to have “up to 20” Next Gen air tankers in FY 2018.

The budget proposal includes funding for only one of the seven HC-130H aircraft obtained from the Coast Guard in December, 2013 that are supposedly being converted into air tankers. The one that has been used for a couple of years is still not completely transformed, and is using a borrowed pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System for dispensing retardant rather than employing a conventional permanent (but removable) internal gravity-powered tank.

The budget document has a rather cryptic sentence about air tankers:

Beginning in 2018, the Forest Service will transition to a full cost recovery business model for aviation utilized by cooperating agencies.

We asked a few Washington Office folks what that meant, and they either didn’t know or failed to respond to our inquiry. One person told us that unclear writing in the document could be the result of a changing of the guards and the reviewers not fully being in place at the Departments and the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency has always charged cooperating agencies for the use of FS aircraft, but it sounds like the price will increase. They may tack on in addition to the hourly rate, additional charges such as working capital fund fees that go toward purchasing replacement aircraft at the end of its life cycle.

The President wants to eliminate the agency’s $6,901,000 contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program  (JFSP) which receives its funding through the FS and the Department of the Interior (DOI). According to the budget proposal document:

The JFSP would focus on completing existing projects and standing down science exchange with managers. New research in the Smoke Management and in the Fuels Treatment lines-of-work would be eliminated, as would new research in the Emerging Management Needs initiative. General fire research in the agency would be conducted through the National Fire Plan and the Forest and Rangeland Research appropriations.

The Department of the Interior intends to cut their JFSP contribution in half, down to $3,000.

The web site for the JFSP describes their work as  “funding scientific research on wildland fires and distributing results to help policymakers, fire managers and practitioners make sound decisions”.

The total budget for all research in the FS would be cut by 16 percent, from $329 million to $276 million.

Department of the Interior

The 2018 budget request for DOI’s discretionary Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $873.5 million. This is a decrease of $118.3 million, or 12 percent, from FY 2017. It would mean a reduction in Full Time Equivalent employees (FTE) from 3,586 to 3,401, or 5 percent.

The number of “fire personnel” would be cut by 140 personnel (jobs) from 4,221 to 4,081, or 3 percent. Smokejumpers would be reduced from 145 to 140, or 3 percent, and engines from 610 to 605, or 1 percent.

The numbers of all DOI firefighting aircraft would remain the same, except single engine air tankers would be cut from 34 to 32, or 6 percent.

Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018
The President’s proposal for Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018. Source: DOI.

As stated above, the DOI’s contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program would be cut in half, to $3 million, while the FS will eliminate their share of funding the program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
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