Senators introduce overtime pay raise bill as fiscal cliff nears

Congress temporarily averted a wildland firefighter pay cliff when it narrowly stopped a government shutdown at the end of September. As that stop-gap nears its expiration on November 17, senators are making new pushes to increase wildland firefighter pay.

Nevada Senators Jacky Rosen and Cortez Masto introduced the “Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act,” which would permanently raise firefighter pay caps. The legislation, if passed, would also expand eligible employment to NWS meteorologists deployed with firefighters and would require a report from the USDA and DOI and NWS on necessary staffing levels of wildland firefighters and meteorologists.

The senators had previously written a letter to legislators urging them to include a permanent salary increase for wildland firefighters in the government funding bill.

“Nevada’s wildland firefighters are heroes who keep our communities safe,” Rosen said. “We must provide them with the pay they deserve, and I’m glad to help introduce this bipartisan legislation to permanently increase their overtime pay caps.”

The bill isn’t the only piece of legislation trying to improve  conditions for wildland firefighters. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA) would authorize premium pay for federal firefighters portal-to-portal whenever they respond to an incident. The act was introduced to Congress before the shutdown was temporarily averted, but was never voted on.

There were 11,187 wildland firefighters (of GS-9 and below) employed through the USFS as of July 25, the according to the agency website. Funding proposed for the next fiscal year would reportedly support the hiring of 970 more firefighter positions, but Congress has yet to make that budget a reality.

If neither bill is approved by November 17, when the government shutdown stopgap is set to expire, wildland firefighter pay will be reduced by either 50 percent of current salary or by $20,000 annually, whichever is lower. It’s expected that the reduction could lead to a third of wildland firefighters walking off the job, according to the employee union and others.


TELL CONGRESS we need to pay firefighters!

Did you know federal firefighters are up for a big pay cut at the end of September? They are. You agree with that? We don’t either.

firefighter fiscal cliffThe federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next, and if Congress doesn’t act to pass legislation, then the current temporary funding to retain firefighters runs out! This puts federal firefighters and their families in a helluva bind — they will be forced to choose between staying in a job they love with dramatically less pay, or finding better-paying work to get by. The Forest Service itself has testified before Congress that without a permanent pay solution, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of its firefighters will leave the ranks — triggering unsafe work environments for remaining fire crews and leaving many fires unstaffed.

Join with us and the GRASSROOTS WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS and sign this petition to make sure Congress knows what’s at stake here. “We will give the signed petition to each member of Congress,” says Riva Duncan, the organization’s vice president, “and we’ll urge them to avoid the Firefighter Fiscal Cliff. Please share this petition with your family, friends, colleagues — and anyone else who cares about this nation’s beloved public lands.”

SIGN THE PETITIONLearn more about the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and how you can help here:

Impacts of budget reductions on fire program of USFWS

USFWSThe impacts of the sequestration budget reductions on the wildland fire program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be just another in a series of past and future hits affecting the agency. In the last few days their Washington office has been distributing more details to the field about what to expect. We obtained the information below from someone who is not authorized to speak for the agency, therefore we are not able to disclose the person’s name.

  • The FWS fire program was told to assume their budget will be 5.1% less than the initial draft allocations due to sequestration, but that could change.
  • Fire employees may be assigned to other accounts to make up for shortfalls in fire budgets in order to avoid furloughs.
  • At least some FWS Regions should be able to absorb a 5.1% decrease with no furloughs necessary because of the cuts they made previously.
  • At this time it doesn’t appear likely that anyone in the FWS fire program will be furloughed.
  • Some of those in the higher levels of the agency are thinking that a “workforce reduction” may be required later. They may have to cut back on positions and/or conduct directed reassignments to prepare for future budget reductions.
  • The cuts the agency absorbed previously, before sequestration, have already created significant adverse impacts on their fire management capabilities.
  • There could be additional reductions when or if the Continuing Resolution budget is passed in the next couple of months.
  • Decisions on whether to stop conducting prescribed fire and fuels treatment projects will be up to each region.
  • Some regions have issued a moratorium on all prescribed burning.
  • Decisions on whether to hire fire-funded seasonals will be up to each region.
  • Required training can still occur, but no other training will be allowed.
  • Sequestration could be a “walk in the park” compared to future possible budget cuts.
  • Some were told, “It’s OK to do less with less. Don’t feel you have to knock yourselves out working hours of comp. time trying to maintain the level of performance you were able to do previously.” And, “Don’t let all the distractions going on right now interfere with your focus on safety.”

More information at Wildfire Today about the recent budget reductions in the federal wildland fire agencies:


Wildfire briefing, February 27, 2013

Fire burns 407 acres near Lone Pine, California

Map of River FireCAL FIRE expects to fully contain the River Fire on Thursday which has burned 407 acres east of Lone Pine, California. Thick brush and winds measured at 25 mph challenged the 500 firefighters that initially fought the blaze after it started on Sunday. Remaining on the fire Wednesday morning are 234 personnel, 11 engines, 6 crews, and 2 water tenders. CAL FIRE is calling it 85 percent contained.

Oregon may regulate exploding targets and sky lanterns

A bill has been introduced in the Oregon legislature, HB 3199, that would prohibit the use of sky lanterns (or fire balloons), exploding targets, and tracer ammunition on land within the boundaries of a forest protection district. (UPDATE: the bill was signed by the Governor and will take effect January 1, 2014.)

“Concealed carry is a right, target shooting is not”

Those were the words of Utah state senator Margaret Dayton who resurrected her bill that would give the state forester the authority to ban target shooting on state lands during periods of enhanced wildfire danger. Earlier she withdrew the bill after it received criticism from some shooting enthusiasts. The bill passed the Senate this week along with another that would allow firefighters to access water on privately owned land to aid them in fire suppression efforts.

According to Utah State Forester Dick Buehler, of the 1,528 fires in the state in 2012, 33 were caused by target shooting which cost over $16 million to suppress. In October, 2012 when we wrote about the increasing number of fires started by target shooters using exploding targets, we found 10 fires started by these devices in Utah over a 5-month period last year. One of them burned over 5,500 acres.

Colorado Senate considers legislation regulating prescribed fires

A bill is speeding through the Colorado Senate that would add safeguards to prescribed fires conducted in the state. Senate Bill 13-083 would:

  • Establish control over prescribed burning within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety;
  • “Prescribed Burn Managers” must be certified by the Division for prescribed fires occurring on state lands or conducted by state agencies on private lands. This does not apply to “burning conducted by an agency of the federal government”;
  • A Prescribed Burn Manager must be on site during a prescribed burn “until the fire is adequately confined to reasonably prevent escape”;
  • Allows the Division to collect fees for providing training and certifications.

Getting manufactured crisis fatigue?

While the people we send to Washington to conduct the nation’s business have not passed a federal budget in four years, and they propel us from one manufactured crisis to another, some of us may tire of the hype as we reel from one ridiculous deadline to another. Unfortunately the impacts on the land management agencies from the budget cuts required by the sequester will be significant unless they are reversed within the next few weeks.

On October 13, we first wrote about the sequester, which will require federal wildland fire programs to be cut by at least $218 million, or 8.2 percent.

Here are some excerpts from an article at the Union Democrat with examples of impacts on the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service in California:

The Associated Press obtained a Park Service memo Friday that detailed some of the planned Yosemite cuts. Staff reductions would end guided ranger programs at Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, eliminate a program in which 3,500 volunteers provide 40,000 hours of activities and mean less frequent trash pickup due to loss of campground staff.

Park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.

Seasonal road closures like that of Tioga Road may be extended later than usual because there will be less staff available to clear snow.

“The reductions would limit the National Park Service’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season. Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks.”

In the Stanislaus National Forest, cuts could reduce funds available for fuels reductions that help prevent catastrophic forest fires. About $134 million in lost wildland fire management funds would lead to as many as 200,000 fewer acres treated nationwide, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter dated Feb. 5 to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Forest Service is also prepared to close up to 670 of 19,000 developed recreation sites nationwide, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, according to Vilsack.

Webinar today: Debunking Myths in Wildland Fire

Today from 1 until 2 p.m. MT:

Sarah McCaffrey will present findings from recent research on social issues of fire management with particular emphasis on the accuracy of various accepted truths about the public and fire management and the variables that actually are associated with approval of different fire management practices.

More info and registration details.

Thanks go out to George

With possible fiscal cliff looming, USDA warns of possible employee furloughs

USDASince Congress still has not dealt with their self-imposed “fiscal cliff” or budget sequestration required by the Budget Control Act of 2011, severe budget cuts could affect the federal land management agencies and their wildland firefighters after March 1. That is the latest deadline after Congress has consistently kicked the can further down the road rather than actually doing their jobs and passing a federal budget.

An all-employees letter from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today warned that the agency could be forced to lay off, or furlough, some employees if the self-imposed crisis is not averted. Here is an excerpt:

…As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures across the Department to determine where we can reduce costs. In many cases, this could mean making cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts. We will also take steps, wherever possible, to cut operational or administrative costs in areas such as travel, training, facilities, and supplies.

We may also have to consider placing employees on temporary furlough, or taking other personnel actions, should sequestration occur. With respect to furloughs, should we have to pursue this unfortunate course of action, let me assure you that all affected employees will be provided at least 30 days’ notice prior to executing a furlough.

If the Budget Control Act of 2011 or “fiscal cliff” is allowed to go into effect on March 1, 2013 the federal wildland fire programs will be cut by $218 million.

In addition, the FLAME wildfire suppression reserve fund will be cut by 8.2 percent, meaning it would not be funded at the 10-year average, greatly increasing the risk of funding shortfalls, as occurred in fiscal year 2012 which ended September 30. Such a shortfall would impact more than just the fire programs. With no carryover funds and a cut in the FLAME reserve fund, the wildland fire agencies in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would need to take funds from other accounts to make up the firefighting shortfall.

Under the Budget Control Act, the sequestration would result in a 9.4 percent reduction in non-exempt defense discretionary funding and an 8.2 percent reduction in non-exempt nondefense discretionary funding. The sequestration would also impose cuts of 2.0 percent to Medicare, 7.6 percent to other non-exempt nondefense mandatory programs, and 10.0 percent to non-exempt defense mandatory programs.

Most of the federal wildland fire appropriations will be subject to an 8.2 percent reduction since they are considered “discretionary”.

A report, prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), revealed the following cuts to wildland fire budgets that could go into effect; the numbers do not include the FLAME fire suppression accounts:

  • U.S. Forest Service Wildland Fire Management: $172 million
  • Department of Interior Wildland Fire Management: $46 million


Will lawmakers allow the fiscal cliff to cut wildland fire programs by 8 percent?

Dollar SignAs we first wrote on October 13, the Budget Control Act of 2001, called the “fiscal cliff”, will require federal wildland fire programs to be cut by at least $218 million, or 8.2 percent. Negotiations are underway to prevent the law from taking effect on January 2, 2013 as planned, but if lawmakers fail to come up with an alternative, there will be some very significant changes in the federal land management agencies.

The Center For American Progress has an article about some of the effects. Here are some excerpts:


…Sequestration will have a big—and negative—impact on land and ocean management agencies. Here’s how it’ll affect all Americans:

  • Less accurate weather forecasts
  • Slower energy development
  • Fewer wildland firefighters
  • Closures of national parks
  • Fewer places to hunt
  • Less fish on your table
  • Diminished maritime safety and security


But the U.S. Forest Service faces tremendous cuts to its firefighting capabilities under sequestration. Its “Wildland Fire Management” account, which funds preparedness, fire suppression, hazardous-fuels removal, restoration, and state fire assistance, among other things, is slated to be cut by $172 million in fiscal year 2013 if the sequester moves forward. Additionally, the Department of the Interior’s “Wildland Fire Management” account faces a $46 million cut next year. The department also funds the “FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund,” which will be cut by $7 million under sequestration. In total, funding for wildland fire prevention and assistance at the land management agencies will be cut by $225 million.

Without such funding, not only will Americans’ property and lives be more at risk, but special places such as national forests and national parks will be less resilient in the face of future fires.



Thanks go out to Dick