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.

US Forest Service to resume prescribed fires

New requirements are in place

Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire April 6, 2022
Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, April 6, 2022. The prescribed fire later escaped, merged with another escaped prescribed fire, and burned more that 341,000 acres and 903 structures. USFS photo.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced that the nearly four-month suspension on prescribed fires has been lifted after receiving the findings and recommendations provided by a National Review Team.

The suspension and review occurred after two prescribed fires on the Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico escaped in April, merged, and became the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak wildfire that burned more than 341,000 acres and 903 structures. The area was later hit by flash floods which resulted in more damage. On September 18 the fire will transition from a Type 2 Incident Management Team to a Type 3 Team.

smoke Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire in northern New Mexico, May 10, 2022. Seen from Santa Fe. Photo by Allen Olson.

A report released by the Forest Service in June about the two escaped fires concluded the approved prescribed fire plan was followed for most but not all of the parameters. The people on the ground felt they were close to or within the prescription limits but fuel moistures were lower than realized and increased heavy fuel loading after fireline preparation contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.

The National Review Team that evaluated the agency’s prescribed fire program produced a 107-page report which included seven recommendations. Chief Moore said in a statement, “I have decided to conditionally resume the Forest Service’s prescribed fire program nationwide with the requirement that all seven tactical recommendations identified are followed and implemented immediately by all Forest Service units across the country. These actions will ensure prescribed fire plans are up to date with the most recent science, that key factors and conditions are closely evaluated the day of a prescribed burn, and that decisionmakers are engaged in those burns in real time to determine whether a prescribed burn should be implemented.”

The seven recommendations in the report:

1. Each Forest Service unit will review all prescribed fire plans and associated complexity analyses to ensure they reflect current conditions, prior to implementation. Prescribed fire plans and complexity analyses will be implemented only after receiving an updated approval by a technical reviewer and being certified by the appropriate agency administrator that they accurately reflect current conditions.

2. Ignition authorization briefings will be standardized to ensure consistent communication and collective mutual understanding on key points.

3. Instead of providing a window of authorized time for a planned prescribed fire, agency administrators will authorize ignitions only for the Operational Period (24 hours) for the day of the burn. For prescribed fires requiring multi-day ignitions, agency administrators will authorize ignitions on each day. Agency administrators will document all elements required for ignition authorization.

4. Prior to ignition onsite, the burn boss will document whether all elements within the agency administrator’s authorization are still valid based on site conditions. The burn boss will also assess human factors, including the pressures, fatigue, and experience of the prescribed fire implementers.

5. Nationwide, approving agency administrators will be present on the unit for all high-complexity burns; unit line officers (or a line officer from another unit familiar with the burn unit) will be on unit for 30-40% of moderate complexity burns.

6. After the pause has been lifted, units will not resume their prescribed burning programs until forest supervisors go over the findings and recommendations in this review report with all employees involved in prescribed fire activities. Forest supervisors will certify that this has been done.

7. The Chief will designate a specific Forest Service point of contact at the national level to oversee and report on the implementation of these recommendations and on the progress made in carrying out other recommendations and considerations raised in this review report.

Chief Moore said two additional actions will occur by the end of this year:

  • Working with the interagency fire and research community and partners they will establish a Western Prescribed Fire Training curriculum to expand on the successes of the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida.
  • The Forest Service will identify a strategy, in collaboration with partners, for having crews that can be dedicated to hazardous fuels work and mobilized across the country to support the highest priority hazardous fuels reduction work.

Report: US Forest Service is sometimes overstating fuel management accomplishments

Forest thinning in the Umpqua National Forest
Forest thinning project in the Umpqua National Forest. Credit, Oregon State University.

NBC News conducted an investigation into some of the claims and statistics about vegetation management projects that are designed to improve forest health and/or and reduce the threat of wildfires. The emphasis of the very lengthy article about their findings was not so much to question the need or effectiveness of the hazardous fuel reduction projects, but to examine their claims of accomplishments, which are sometimes misleading.

Many fuel management projects on National Forests include multiple treatments of a single area. There can be some combination of thinning, pruning, piling, chipping, or prescribed burning, all considered independently and occurring at different times. In an extreme scenario, if the project was 100 acres and five different treatments occurred, each might be reported as accomplishing 100 acres of fuel treatment. They then tell Congress they treated 500 acres.

The NBC article gave an actual example of a project on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California near Big Bear Lake. The 173-acre project had multiple treatments. From the article:

They first [step] appeared in 2016, when the Forest Service assigned workers to cut trees to reduce the area’s density. The agency came back two years later, pruning the remaining trees and piling the cut wood across the full 173 acres, then chipping 52 acres of it. A few months later, workers burned 18 acres of the piles.

The pruning, piling, chipping and burning were entered as separate items in the database and the agency reported them as 416 acres of treated land in its 2019 fiscal year totals to Congress. In summer 2021, it burned the remaining 155 acres of piles, reporting them in that year’s totals.

The Forest Service’s efforts ultimately reduced fire risk on 173 acres of land, but they were reported to Congress as 744 acres over four fiscal years.

“These acres are reported six times because we must request funding to accomplish the full suite of activities on the same 173 acres,” said [Wade] Muehlhof, the service’s spokesperson. “Each of these activities needs to be planned and budgeted for annually.”

The Forest Service tells Congress that it reduces wildfire risk on more than 2.5 million acres of its land every year. But this process of recounting the same acres any time more than one type of work is completed means that far less land is protected from damaging fire than is being reported.

NBC estimates that nationwide the FS has overstated accomplishments by 2.5 million acres, or 17 percent. In California the numbers are higher, 27 percent in the past five years, and by roughly 35 percent in the places near the most people, the state’s wildland urban interface areas.

The NBC article was written by Adiel Kaplan, with assistance from Monica Hersher and Joe Murphy.

US Forest Service pauses all prescribed fire operations

A 90-day review of practices is being conducted

Morning briefing on the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Morning briefing May 8, 2022 on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire as firefighters break out into Divisions. The Hermits Peak Fire started from an escaped prescribed fire on April 6, 2022. USFS photo.

The US Forest Service announced May 20 in a press release that a “pause” is in effect for all prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands. The reason given for the pause is “because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field…while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in the statement released late Friday afternoon.

The public statement from Chief Moore does not actually say in clear text why the review is being conducted, but the unmentioned elephant in the press release is the hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the weeks-long evacuation orders in New Mexico, some of it attributed to an escaped prescribed fire. However in an email sent to FS employees, the Chief wrote, “I’m sure you all have seen the stories in the news about recent prescribed burn escapes. These, as well as isolated incidents on other national forests in recent years, have made it imperative that we pause to review our processes. That’s why I am temporarily halting all prescribed burns on National Forest System lands and creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community.”

At least two prescribed fires escaped in New Mexico in April. The Hermits Peak Fire escaped from the Las Dispensas prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas on April 6. On April 22 it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire which was reported April 19 in the general area where another prescribed fire was ignited about three months earlier. Now a month after the Calf Canyon Fire was reported the FS is saying its cause is still under investigation.

The combined Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire is still spreading. It has burned more than 303,000 acres and destroyed 347 homes and 287 other structures. Another 16,316 structures are threatened and evacuations are still in effect. An estimated $95 million has been spent so far on suppression of the fire.

On April 7 a prescribed fire being conducted by the Bureau of Land Management about 10 miles southeast of Roswell, NM escaped and burned 1,900 acres.

On the Dixie National Forest in Utah the Left Fork Fire was reported May 9. On May 10 the Forest Service said it ignited from material still burning from a prescribed fire conducted April 7, 2022.  On May 11, 12, and 13 the daily updates on the wildfire posted by the Dixie National Forest stated it was “human caused.” The escaped fire burned 97 acres.

Left Fork Fire escaped prescribed fire
Firefighters construct fireline on the Left Fork Fire in Utah which was caused by an escaped prescribed fire. Posted by the Dixie NF, May 12, 2022. Photo by Mervin Garcia, Engine 322.

On May 16 the Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests ignited the Simms Mesa prescribed fire, expected to treat 200 acres about 11 miles south of Montrose, Colorado. On May 19 a wildfire was reported in the area which was was given the name “Simms Fire”. Officially the cause is under investigation, but the Forest Service on May 19 wrote about the fire on Facebook, “Earlier in the week a prescribed burn was conducted in the vicinity which was monitored daily. The cause of the fire is under investigation.” Fire officials report that at least one home has been destroyed. Evacuations are in effect and Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 1 has been mobilized. Friday morning it had burned 371 acres.

“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” the statement from Chief Moore said. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”

The FS safely conducts about 4,500 prescribed fire projects each year on average, treating more than 1.4 million acres. Since most prescribed fires are conducted between September and May, the Forest Service expects the pause will have “minimal impact” on their goal of increasing fuels treatments by up to four times the current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments.

Issuing a press release late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the work week is a tactic sometimes chosen in hopes that the timing of the unfavorable information will minimize its negative impact.

Inciweb currently lists nine prescribed fire projects on Forest Service lands in various stages of planning or execution; there are likely more, since not all are entered at the website.

Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak fire
Firefighters attempt to hold the Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak Fire at Highway 434, May 10, 2022. Inciweb.

Forest Service firefighter wins whistleblower retaliation complaint

A judge ordered that he receive back pay and be reinstated

Pedro Rios
Pedro Rios

A seasonal firefighter who the US Forest Service (FS) refused to rehire due to something he wrote Facebook, won his case before the Merit Systems Protection Board. After the judge ordered that the agency reinstate him and give him back pay, the firefighter agreed to a $115,000 settlement from the FS.

Pedro Rios worked on the Klamath National Forest at Grass Lake Station on the Goosenest Ranger District. He had 12 years of firefighting experience with a private contractor and the FS.

In July, 2020, about six months into the COVID pandemic, Mr. Rios and his strike team were dispatched to Southern California. They did not quarantine before or after traveling. When they were told to return from what was considered a “hot zone”, and being on standby at a fire station where employees had tested positive for COVID days or weeks before their arrival, they were told that instead of quarantining for a week or more, they were supposed to “self-isolate” if they experienced symptoms after return.

Mr. Rios at that point thought of his son who in 2019 was life flighted to Children’s Hospital in Davis, California and kept for 2 days for labored breathing due to severe asthma. His fiancée also has asthma, but not to the same degree.

Worried about the impact his crew returning without quarantining would have on his hometown and his family, on July 8, 2020 he wrote a post on the Siskiyou Coronavirus Community Response Facebook page. He included a screenshot of the top management positions on the Klamath NF.

Pedro Rios Facebook post
Pedro Rios Facebook post, July 8, 2020.

In the post, after explaining that the plan was for the personnel to return without a quarantine, he name-checked the Fire Staff Officer on his home forest, “so the public can voice their concerns to him as well.”

District Ranger Drew Stroberg led the effort to not rehire Mr. Rios for the next season even though his performance ratings were fully satisfactory and an employee relations specialist told the Ranger that Mr. Rios likely had whistleblower status. Mr. Stroberg was also advised that he had no choice but to rehire the firefighter.

While working with a crew at the Little Soda Fire on the Klamath NF in late July, 2020, Mr. Rios noticed a newly hired firefighter who was exhibiting symptoms of rhabdomyolysis. If left untreated, severe rhabdo may be fatal or result in permanent disability. After Mr. Rios took the necessary steps to ensure he received medical attention, the firefighter was removed from the fire and was hospitalized. The crew boss had failed to take action earlier after the firefighter was throwing up in the truck. The crew boss reported that Mr. Rios had a negative attitude. One of the crewmen testified in the hearing that Mr. Rios “saved the guy’s life,” was a good leader, and he did not have a bad attitude. In the court proceeding several witnesses in addition to Mr. Rios testified that the crew boss did not prioritize safety.

Michael S. Shachat, the Administrative Judge who oversaw the case for the Merit Systems Protection Board, said Mr. Rios’s Facebook post “broke no rules and raised legitimate concerns through the only forum he felt he had available to him to do so.” He also ruled that Mr. Rios had whistleblower status and that the Forest Service retaliated against him by preventing him from being rehired.

“I find that Stroberg’s frustration with the appellant’s alleged unprofessional choice to raise his concerns on social media and his comments to the appellant in setting ‘expectations’ for future conduct is itself evidence of a motive to retaliate,” the judge wrote. “Considering the record as a whole, I find that there is strong evidence of a retaliatory motive on the agency’s part, particularly with respect to Stroberg.”

In his decision, Judge Shachat ordered the FS to pay Mr. Rio the back pay he missed, with interest. In addition, he ordered the agency to place Mr. Rios in the same position he would have been in had he been rehired for the 2021 fire season. He also ordered the agency to remove Mr. Rios from any “DO NOT REHIRE” lists.

Mr. Rios told Wildfire Today that he “applied for 350 permanent positions with a stellar record of signed evals.” But now, “Although I have zero interest in returning to USFS I will continue to speak out against USFS Management in the hopes that my verdict can and will be used as a precedent and expose how limited USFS Management’s authority is and show if they try to retaliate EEOs can uncover their behind the scenes behavior regardless of how they try to pass it off to the employee and ER/HR.”

“I’d also like to point out,” Mr. Rios said, “[the crew boss’s] history of lack of safety for his personnel resulted in several employees being put on light duty after several dehydration issues. My case is just the best documented incident so far.”

Pedro Rios
Pedro Rios and his son. Photo courtesy of Mr. Rios.

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.