The Joint Fire Science Program is offering grants for research into topics that can lead to more effective treatment of fuels. Examples include:
Longevity of fuel treatment effectiveness under climate change;
Fuels treatment effectiveness across landscapes;
Pre-fire management actions for reducing post-fire hazards; and
Social and political factors that influence fire suppression and rehabilitation costs.
The funding amounts for each of the four projects is expected to range from $300,000 to $500,000.
The new grant opportunities stem from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to advance research into wildfire prevention and post-fire restoration on federal lands.
The Joint Fire Science Program is accepting applications for grants to research innovative fuels treatments and post-fire rehabilitation efforts through Dec. 20, 2022, for fiscal year 2023.
Funding opportunities for wildland fire research priorities are posted on the Joint Fire Science Program’s website.
“With increasing wildfire activity due to climate change, it is imperative we fund research to better understand how to manage fire prone landscapes now and into the future,” said Grant Beebe, Bureau of Land Management assistant director of fire and aviation, based at the National Interagency Fire Center. “The Joint Fire Science Program brings the science and management community together in a unique, collaborative manner so that research can be used to make sound decisions on the ground.”
This funding is in addition to $3.4 billion in wildfire suppression and mitigation included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
This includes investments such as:
• $600 million to increase federal firefighter salaries by up to $20,000/year and convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighters to year-round positions.
• $500 million for hazardous fuels mitigation.
• $500 million for prescribed fires.
• $500 million for communities to implement their community wildfire defense plan, a collaborative plan to address local hazards and risks from wildfire.
• $500 million for developing control locations and installing fuel breaks.
• $100 million for preplanning fire response workshops and workforce training.
• $40 million for radio frequency interoperability and to create Reverse-911 systems.
• $20 million for NOAA to create a satellite that rapidly detects fires in areas the federal government has financial responsibility.
• $10 million to procure real-time wildfire detection and monitoring equipment in high-risk or post-burn areas.
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.
In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire
Today, on Earth Day, President Biden will sign an Executive Order to conduct the first-ever inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. This will be completed and made publicly available in a year with the objective of establishing consistent definitions and accounting for regional and ecological variation. The agencies will then analyze threats facing these forests, including from wildfires and other climate impacts.
After completing the inventory, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture will develop new policies, after public comment, to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address the threats facing mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.
We are losing thousands of giant sequoia trees that can live for 3,000 years
Nowhere is the need for protecting old growth forests more obvious than in the giant sequoia groves in California. In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire. Early estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years. These losses make up an estimated additional 3-5% of the entire Sierra Nevada sequoia population over four feet in diameter.
Under normal conditions giant sequoia trees can live for more than 3,000 years, which is 38 times the life expectancy of a human in the United States. The multi-year drought and higher temperatures have led to extremely dry fuel moistures which is causing wildfires in California and other areas to burn with unusual intensity, making even some of the giant sequoias with bark up to a foot thick susceptible to wildfires burning under these conditions.
It is probably safe to assume that when large fires are burning most of the priorities of the Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups for allocating scarce resources are decided by individuals with a history of on the ground firefighting. They may have a bias toward allocating more fire personnel to protect buildings, rather than fires where 3,000-year old trees 300 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter are being destroyed.
Since only approximately 100,000 of these mammoth trees are left that are larger than four feet in diameter, government employees allocating firefighting resources need to strongly consider the value of these treasures to the nation and the world, and that some of them have been living for thousands of years. It is disheartening to see hundreds of them destroyed in a matter of hours, especially if due in part to sending resources, instead, to protect structures that have not been hardened to FireSafe standards or constructed under reasonable county and city building codes.
The giant sequoias have already been inventoried. We know where they are. What NEEDS to be done is to ramp up the management of the fuels beneath these big trees, and greatly increase the prescribed fire programs around them on lands managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires
The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a five-year plan to address wildfire risk on DOI protected land. It will help to prepare communities and ecosystems against the threat of wildfire by making investments in forest restoration, hazardous fuels management, and post-wildfire restoration. Much of it will be funded by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) which provides $1.5 billion for the DOI’s Wildland Fire Management Program
Today, the Department released a roadmap for achieving these objectives in coordination with federal, non-federal, and Tribal partners. The roadmap follows the release in January of the U.S. Forest Service 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy. Taken together, these plans outline the monitoring, maintenance, and treatment strategy the agencies will use to address wildfire risk, better serve communities, and improve conditions on all types of lands where wildfires can occur.
“Wildland fire management simply isn’t possible without the interagency, all-hands approach made possible by multilevel partnerships across the country,” said Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeff Rupert.
The overall strategy identified by the Interior and Agriculture Departments builds on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy’s vision of safely and effectively extinguishing fire, when needed; using fire where allowable; managing natural resources; and, as a nation, living with wildland fire.
Today Director Rupert and personnel from the Forest Service testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on their planned work to address wildland fire.
In the hearing today, Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico referred to the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy released in January. “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”
Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”
After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.
The DOI’s 5-year plan has a page and a half, Section III Planning, devoted to changes that will help to enable the execution of the additional workload. Those include:
Creating a team to deal with NEPA and other statutory review compliance;
Exploring opportunities to leverage partnerships and to utilize existing authorities to facilitate hazardous fuel treatments, such as Good Neighbor Authority.
Increase contracting and administration capacity so that programs have the support needed to carry out critical wildland fire management work. This will support efforts to hire additional wildland firefighters that are needed for wildfire response and to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuel treatment efforts, along with the contracting that is needed for other critical fuel and restoration activities.
BIL investments will also allow DOI to expand staffing for professional positions that support science-based management decisions.
Continuing efforts started in 2021 to convert seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent full-time status will facilitate DOI efforts to respond to wildfires year-round and undertake hazardous fuel projects during periods of low wildfire activity.
The BIL provides funding to expand opportunities for training for staff, non-Federal wildland firefighters, and Native village fire crews to increase the pace and scale of fuel management treatments.
The USDA Forest Service’s 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy focuses on treatment of up to 20 million acres of National Forest System lands, while Interior’s Five-Year Plan emphasizes fire-prone Interior and Tribal lands, including rangelands and other vegetative ecosystems that pose serious fire risks. Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires.
Personnel from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior testified Tuesday before a Congressional Committee
The standard line from the US Forest Service about the number of wildland firefighters in the agency has been 10,000 wildland firefighters nationwide, but in recent years they have been unable to fill all of their positions due to difficulties in recruitment and retention. The San Francisco Chronicle (subscription) reported that in 2021 the number stationed in California dropped from 5,000 in 2019 to 3,956, more than a 20 percent decline.
In a hearing today before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, the Forest Service said they believe they are turning that problem around.
Representative Katie Porter from California asked how many firefighters does the agency need to have. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry said their goal this year is 11,300. That would be 13 percent more than the maximum they have had in recent memory.
When Rep. Porter asked how many they have now, Ms. Hall-Rivera said she didn’t know because they are still hiring.
“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace [to meet that goal]. By all accounts that hiring event went very well. Importantly what we are seeing is a very high acceptance rate in our permanent and seasonal permanent firefighting positions, which is what we want. We want to be able to convert this workforce to have more or a larger proportion of it to be permanent and a smaller proportion of it be temporary… We think that we will be at the capacity we need at the Forest Service this year.”
“That’s really great to hear,” Rep. Porter said, “because as you know last year according to the National Federation of Federal Employees, about 30 percent of the federal hotshot crews that worked on the front lines of wildfires in California were understaffed. Last year the Forest Service had 60 fire engines in California alone that were idled because of understaffing. I’m very heartened to hear a concrete number, a concrete goal, for what full staffing looks like.”
Rep. Porter asked how much it costs to bring in firefighters from other fire departments when the Forest Service does not have adequate staffing for fire suppression. Ms. Hall-Rivera said she did not have those numbers, but would get back to the Representative. Firefighters from CAL FIRE and municipal fire departments make two to three times what federal wildland firefighters make and they get paid 24 hours a day, “portal to portal”, for weeks on large fires until they are back in their own station. Federal firefighters are usually limited to 16 hours a day, and are forced to take a 30 minute lunch break even when they are on the steep slope of a God-forsaken ridge breathing smoke miles from the nearest road.
Earlier Ms. Hall-Rivera said the Forest Service has lost 40 percent of their non-fire workforce. This reduction in personnel, some of whom were qualified to be assigned to a fire in addition to their regular duties, can increase the difficulty of staffing fires and other incidents.
Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission
Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico asked when members would be appointed to the new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, H.R.3684, signed by the President on November 15, 2021. The law required that the appointments were to be made by January 14, 2022. Their initial meeting was to be held no later than February 13, 2022.
Ms. Hall-Rivera said the announcement for applications closed last Friday after receiving more than 500 responses. The members will be selected “in a month or two,” she said.
Tamarack Fire and aggressive initial attack
Representative Tom McClintock of California, brought up the subject of the Tamarack Fire in California which was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.
“This is insane,” Rep. McCLintock said, referring to the management of the fire. “Please tell me that you are dropping that policy and you will be vigorously attacking fires on their initial discovery rather than waiting for them to become one of these massive conflagrations.”
“We put out 98 percent of fires on initial attack,” Ms. Hall-Rivera said. “The Tamarack Fire is one of those 2 percent that we were not able to do that because we were resource-limited in the country as a whole.”
“You deliberately sat on it,” Rep. McClintock said. “Can you assure me that henceforth upon discovery of a fire you will order an aggressive initial attack?”
“Yes, Congressman, that is what we do,” said Hall-Rivera.
Goals for fuel treatment
“While the Forest Service’s budget has more than doubled since 2014, the amount of hazardous fuels treatment has remained frustratingly stagnant, only addressing roughly two percent of their needs annually,” said Rep. Herrell. “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”
“The Infrastructure law was a significant step in the right direction in terms of wildland firefighter compensation, and once again I thank you for your work on that,” Ms. Hall-Rivera replied. “But we need to continue to work together to find a permanent solution to increasing our wildland firefighters’ pay and making other system changes that insure that we can continue to support our firefighters and insure that this is a career that others will pursue in the future.”
Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Ms. Hall-Rivera said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.
Staffing for the additional fuel management workload
Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”
After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service, glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.
I did not summarize every topic that came up in the hearing, but attempted to capture the most significant ones related to wildland fire. After reading through the above, I noticed a trend: PLANNING, and a lack thereof.
Failure to meet the deadlines required for the establishing the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.
Planning to rely on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan for fuel management.
The 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. “The strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.”
The Forest Service does not know if they have enough staffing to accomplish the new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation.
It reminds me of the effort by Congress to transfer seven C-130 aircraft to the Forest Service to be converted to air tankers.
On December 27, 2013, President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also supplied $130 million for the Air Force to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.
About 522 days later, on June 1, 2015 the FS distributed internally a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency was not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor operated venture (GO/CO). On that date the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel. The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned.”
“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”
The FS did not use the 522 days to plan for the absorption of the aircraft into the fleet.
They came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper:
This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).
Eventually, more than four years after the transfer and tens of millions had likely been spent on the refurbishment of the seven aircraft, the Forest Service decided they did not want the air tankers. Congress passed additional legislation to give the seven HC-130Hs to the state of California instead.
A group of state and federal land management agencies in California has established a plan to promote the use of “beneficial fire”, and by 2025 expect to treat up to 400,000 acres a year.
That is well short of the agreement the same agencies reached in 2018 to treat one million acres per year by 2025. In August, 2020 they recommitted to that same one million-acre target. The plan released last week restates the one-million goal on page 17, but on the following page says, “By 2025, land managers will seek to deploy beneficial fire on 400,000 acres annually, based on the following targets and estimates:”
The numbers above total 300,000 prescribed/cultural acres each year plus 120,000 to 200,000 acres of fire managed for resource benefit.
Beneficial fire, a term not widely used, is defined in the document as including prescribed fire, fire managed for resource benefit (less than full suppression of unplanned ignitions), and cultural burning by California Native American tribes.
Between 2017 and 2020, CAL FIRE and the US Forest Service completed or assisted with prescribed fire activities on approximately 80,000 acres annually, according to the plan released by the agencies last week. In the same period tribes, California State Parks, the National Park Service, local agencies, and private entities completed burns on tens of thousands of additional acres annually. The USFS and NPS also completed approximately 20,000 acres each year of fire managed for resource benefit. The amount of land thinned or converted into fuel breaks but not burned would add to that figure.
Doing some back of the envelope ciphering, let’s assume that during that four-year period about 120,000 acres were prescribed burned each year. Current estimates indicate that between 10 million and 30 million acres in California need some form of fuel reduction treatment. To use a middle ground number, if 20 million acres need to be treated on an average fire return interval of 20 years, for example, that works out to one million acres that need to be treated each year, about eight times the area treated every year recently. The actual average fire return interval should probably be less, especially considering that neglected areas will need both an initial entry burn and at least one subsequent burn before they can be restored to a sustainable fire regime and obtain maintenance status.
The plan released last week by the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force indicates that the state of California will begin managing some fires for resource benefit, major change in their policy. They will evaluate areas on state land where modified fire suppression strategies can be implemented, such as land trusts, ranches, and timber owners. Where appropriate and authorized by the state Legislature, CAL FIRE will use plans and agreements with land managers and landowners in order to allow unintentional ignitions to burn under predetermined and prescribed conditions, to accomplish resource benefits similar to prescribed fire.
The key elements of the plan include:
Launching an online prescribed fire permitting system to streamline the review and approval of prescribed fire projects;
Establishing the state’s new Prescribed Fire Claims Fund to reduce liability for private burners;
Beginning a statewide program to enable tribes and cultural fire practitioners to revitalize cultural burning practices;
A prescribed fire training center to grow, train, and diversify the state’s prescribed fire workforce;
An interagency beneficial fire tracking system;
Pilot projects to undertake larger landscape-scale burns; and
A comprehensive review of the state’s smoke management programs to facilitate prescribed fire while protecting public health.
“This plan is vital to improve the health and resilience of the state’s forests, reduce wildfire risk of vulnerable communities, and increase stewardship by Native American fire practitioners,” said Task Force Co-Chair and U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien.
The plan, California’s Strategic Plan for Expanding the use of Beneficial Fire, March 2022, was developed by the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force. It can be downloaded here: (large 17 MB file).