Several issues important to wildland firefighters discussed during Senate Hearing Thursday

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sept. 29, 2022.

During a hearing today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a number of issues important to federal wildland firefighters were discussed. The two witnesses from the agencies were John Crockett, Associate Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, Forest Service, and Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Department of the Interior.

We don’t have time to get into the details, but here are the points at which some key topics were covered in the video above, which shows the entire hearing:

  • 45:19. Three-day break in service which can result in a firefighter (FF) losing eligibility for FF retirement.
  • 49:50. Forest Service counting the same acres of fuel treatments multiple times.
  • 54:47. FF mental health.
  • 1:00:00. Protecting Giant Sequoias from fire during their 3,000-year life span.
  • 1:06:30. How many firefighting aircraft do the agencies have?
  • 1:22:20. FF pay, and a long term solution.
  • 1:27:50 and again at 1:37:30. A possible new requirement for air tankers to have pressurized cabins.
  • 1:33:45. Why have the agencies not accomplished more acres of fuel treatments?

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters clipped portions of the hearing, as you’ll see in the short videos below.

Senator Murkowski asks the USFS and DOI about long-term pay for Federal Wildland Firefighters:

Senator Heinrich asks the DOI what they are doing for Firefighter Mental Health:

Forest Service and DOI Respond to Three-Day Break In Service Issue for Wildland Firefighters:

Senators ask Forest Service Chief about firefighter pay, fuels treatment, and firefighting aircraft

Chief Randy Moore said the agency has 10,184 firefighters on board

Updated at 9:04 EDT June 10, 2022

Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources June 9, 2022
Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources June 9, 2022

In Washington today Senators questioned Chief of the US Forest Service Randy Moore about a number of issues during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Some the key topics included firefighter pay, fuel treatments, prescribed fire, escaped prescribed fire, hiring and retention, the number of firefighters in the agency, and firefighting aircraft. We’ll touch on some of them here, in the order they appeared in the hearing. An archived video of the entire hearing is available at the Committee’s website. Embedded below are clips created by the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

48:29 — Senator Ron Wyden (OR) said, “The shortage of permanent wildland fire positions, if not addressed, is on it’s way to becoming a four-alarmer…What’s the most important response? Better pay, decent benefits for these firefighters so they can pay their rent and buy groceries. That is not the case today according to firefighters talking to me.”

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, during June 9, 2022 hearing

Chief Moore replied, “You know Senator, if I had the ability to set the pay for my firefighters I would certainly do that. I am left with trying to implement direction that is given through legislation…We are going to use every tool in that legislation to pay our firefighters more because they are very deserving of it. It’s dirty, nasty, hard work and they do deserve better pay, they deserve better benefits, they deserve better care in terms of mental and physical health conditions out there.”

48:29 — Senator Wyden got a commitment from the Chief to respond within two weeks to the issues he listed in a June 7, 2022 letter sent to the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture about how the funds in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation (BIL) are being allocated and dispersed to the field, strategy for filling vacant positions, how to retain employees, progress on establishing the new Wildland Firefighter job series, and how to reduce the number of unfilled orders fires place for firefighting crews and engines.

1:02:09 — Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) asked questions about the escaped prescribed fires that led to the currently burning Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

1:15:50  — Senator Angus King (ME) gave an impassioned plea to implement the pay raises that were signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the BIL.

“Eisenhower retook Europe in 11 months”, Senator King said. “You can’t do a pay raise in seven months? Come on!”

Senator John Barrasso (WY) also called for a pay raise.

1:18:45 — Senator Cortez Masto asked about what may be a temporary pay raise required by the legislation which would increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less. Chief Moore said it will occur in “a couple of weeks”, and later said, “by the end of this month…That’s the goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.” Senator Masto was persistent, seeking facts and clarity, asking follow up questions, and getting details.

1:21:45 — Chief Moore discussed fuel treatments and emphasized that the treated areas must be large in order to effectively slow the spread of a very large fire. As far as accomplishing that, he  said, “… Based on the fires we are having now, we do not have enough firefighters to really successfully stop fires the way they are behaving because they are behaving in a catastrophic manner.

1:27:10 — Senator Martin Heinrich (NM) questioned the trend toward closing fire lookout towers staffed by humans, and replacing them with technology. The Chief did not take the bait or respond directly.

1:55:50 — Senator Maria Cantwell threw Chief Moore what could have been a softball question. “Where we are with our [firefighting] air capacity,” she said. “We previously had this discussion with the Forest Service wanting them to have more ready resources. The Forest Service I think at that time didn’t want to be in the fleet management business and said we’d rather contract. How are you viewing those air resources now that we know that we have so many more fire starts…We want to know that we have that early phase retardant or water…How is the Forest Service managing that given the huge increase in fire starts?”

Chief Moore responded: “You may know now that we have access to about 27 VLATS, Very large air tankers, also the large air tankers and so far we are not running across a need for additional tankers in this particular case at this particular time. We also — I don’t know why these decisions were made in the past about the aircraft but we do know that they are expensive to maintain if Forest Service had ownership of them. But you know there are pros and cons about that so I won’t really go into that, I’m not familiar with what went into that many years ago. In terms of our aircraft, we certainly need aircraft to help us with fire suppression. We also know that there are limitations with aircraft as well because aircraft don’t put out fires. It’s boots on the ground is where the fires are really put out.”

His predecessor in April 2021 squandered a softball opportunity to tell the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies that the Forest Service needed more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. Today Chief Moore squandered a similar opportunity, giving an incoherent response when basically asked, “Do you have enough firefighting aircraft?”

The facts are, there are 2 Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) and 16 Large Air Tankers (LAT) on exclusive use (EU) contracts, working for 160 days. To say “We have access to 27” VLATs and/or LATs is intentionally misleading. The Forest Service assumes that the additional tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that may or may not ever be used, are always available at private companies, with flight crews and mechanics that are available and ready to quickly activate if the phone rings. And, it assumes that those companies are still in business and the very expensive aircraft which may have been idle for months are fully maintained and airworthy.

There are only a total of four VLATs in the Western Hemisphere that could be used on fires in the United States, all DC-10s. Two are on 160-day Forest Service EU contracts and the other two were recently activated on 120-day “surge” contracts. It is also usually possible to activate up to eight military C-130s temporarily converted to air tankers by carrying a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). But after hearing some chatter, we are checking to see if those will be available this year.

Two studies conducted for the Forest Service made recommendations for the number of air tankers that are needed on exclusive use contracts. One said 35 and the other said 41.

2:00:30 — The very last topic covered was what we have called the Holy Grail of wildland firefighting safety; knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters. Senator Manchin pointed out that “15 months past the deadline in the statute the Forest Service has not equipped firefighters with the safety gear despite the technology having been commercially available on the shelf for many, many years, and despite Congress having appropriated $15 million for this, so maybe you have an explanation for that.”

Chief Moore said “No one believes in this more than I do”, but he said his staff told him it was not funded. The Senator said he understood it was funded. The two sides agreed to get together and figure it out.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act required that by March 12, 2021 the five federal land management agencies “…develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires.”

While this technology has been demonstrated, real time mapping appears to be far from being used routinely.

The Dingell Act also mandated that the five federal land management agencies “jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources for use by wildland firefighters, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal type 1 wildland fire incident management teams”, due by the same date.

The US Bureau of Land Management has installed hardware for Location Based Services (LBS) which are now operational on more than 700 wildland fire engines, crew transports, and support vehicles. Vehicle position and utilization data are visually displayed via a web-based portal or mobile device application.

Fifteen months after it was required by Congress the US Forest Service has made very little progress on this mandate.

Whether or not the technology was specifically funded, it should be considered that the lack of situational awareness had led to dozens of fatalities on wildland fires and must be addressed.

We asked Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, for their impression of today’s hearing:

Federal Wildland Firefighter Pay has been a priority for our elected officials since the BIL was passed last October. We are still waiting. We are hopeful this increase in pay will be delivered to firefighters in the next two weeks.

The article was updated to include the question and answer about the requirement for the five federal land management agencies to provide technology for the real time location of the fire and firefighters.

Forest Service Chief to testify before Congress June 9

He may be asked questions about implementing the firefighter pay raises signed into law 8 months ago


US Capitol
US Capitol. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is scheduled to testify Thursday June 9 at 10 a.m. EDT before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It will be live streamed, and a link will likely appear on the Committee’s website.

The primary purpose of the hearing is to examine the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2023 which begins in October.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, May 5, 2022
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, May 5, 2022.

There is no doubt that some of the Senators will use the opportunity to question Chief Moore about the progress, or lack thereof, to implement the firefighter pay raises signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Senators on the committee who usually appear to be engaged on these topics, often asking pointed questions of Forest Service personnel, include Ron Wyden (OR), Maria Cantwell (WA), Angus King (ME), and Lisa Murkowski (AK). I watch many hearings about fire management issues. I don’t take attendance, but have no memory of ever seeing some of the committee members show up, such as Bernard Sanders (VT), Mark Kelly (AZ), or Cindy Hyde-Smith (MS). I may have just missed them on days when they made important contributions.

The Chief’s written testimony for Thursday’s hearing is already posted. Below is an excerpt in which he mentions fire funding.

  • $321 million for hazardous fuels reduction, which will allow the agency to mitigate wildfire risk on 3.8 million acres in high priority and high-risk areas. This investment builds on the hazardous fuels funding the Forest Service will receive through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2023 and supports the objectives of the agency’s 10-year wildfire crisis strategy.
  • $1.15 billion for Wildland Fire Management Salaries and Expenses to fund additional firefighters and firefighting support personnel and support this Administration’s direction that all firefighters receive a minimum wage of $15 per hour. This increased workforce capacity will enhance year-round fire response and hazardous fuels reduction activity and allow the Forest Service to continue important investments that support the health, well-being, and resilience of the agency’s wildland firefighting force.
  • $1.68 billion for National Forest System Salaries and Expenses. Funding will strengthen areas needed to support the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the agency’s 10-year wildfire crisis strategy, and the Great American Outdoors Act. This funding will also help the agency bolster capacity in critical non-fire programs, which have lost staffing in recent years, and thereby enhance social and economic benefits to the American public.

The Forest Service’s 223-page Budget Justification for FY 2023 goes into more detail.

Chief Moore already went through this exercise before the House Committee on Appropriations on April 27, 2022 and the Senate Committee on Appropriations May 4, 2022.

Forest Service Chief says in some areas only 50% of firefighter positions are filled

Chief Randy Moore testified Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, May 5, 2022
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, May 5, 2022.

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was asked by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley about the status of hiring wildland firefighters. Chief Moore said their goal is to hire 11,300 nationwide and the current level is at 10,200, or 90 percent. He said in some areas the agency has only reached 50 percent of their staffing goal.

“Fifty percent sounds a little scary,” said Senator Merkley, ” when you’re thinking about the fires that we’ll be facing in our various states.”

Chief Moore said many of the Forest Service’s firefighting positions are in Washington, Oregon, and California.

“We are making offers, and there’s a lot of declinations in those offers,” Chief Moore said. “There’s a lot of competition in the labor market for these skills. Because when you have county, state, and private firefighters often sometimes [making] double the salaries the Forest Service firefighters are making it’s very hard to compete with that.”

Chief Moore said they have a plan in place to make up for the shortfall that they are currently seeing. They will be hiring through July to try to fill the remaining jobs and will count on contracted firefighters and the use of Administratively Determined, or AD, temporary personnel. The ADs, if they are qualified, can be hired for days or weeks to staff fire engines and hand crews, and can also fill certain overhead positions at fires.

The Chief’s words were different from those spoken by another very high-ranking person in the Forest Service. In Congressional testimony on April 5, the US Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry testified before members of Congress that a firefighter hiring event “went very well”. It turns out that the event had not started yet.

“We just completed an additional fire hire event in California at the end of March and those numbers are still coming in,” Ms. Jaelith Hall-Rivera said. “I do think we are on pace. 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.”

In recent years the federal agencies with wildland firefighting responsibilities have had difficulties hiring and retaining firefighters, resulting in engines and hotshot crews that can’t respond to fires because there are not enough employees to staff them to minimum standards. The reasons cited for resignations, early retirements, and declinations of job offers include very low pay, extensive time away from home, failure of the government to financially support personnel injured on the job, and stress on family life.

On Monday National Public Radio’s flagship station in Southern California, KCRW, interviewed Brianna Sacks, a Buzzfeed News reporter who has been covering the hiring and retention issues faced by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities.

“The burnout is really real for these firefighters who are making no money. They make their living doing thousands of hours of overtime and they still can’t afford to make ends meet,” Sacks told KCRW. “They’ve been leaving en masse, hemorrhaging firefighters to go to CAL FIRE, PG&E, or private sector jobs. And they’ve also been part of the great resignation with the pandemic.”

Forest Service expects to substantially increase the number of firefighters this year

Personnel from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior testified Tuesday before a Congressional Committee

Congressional hearing, April 5, 2022
Witnesses in the hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, April 5, 2022. L to R: Brian Ferebee (FS), Jaelith Hall-Rivera (FS), Jeff Rupert (Dept. of Interior).

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.

My take:

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.

  1. Failure to meet the deadlines required for the establishing the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.
  2. Planning to rely on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan for fuel management.
  3. The 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. “The strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.”
  4. 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.

Video of the hearing:

Randy Moore and Carole King to testify before Congress Wednesday about wildfires

Topics of the hearing will include wildfire preparation measures and the human toll of wildfires

Carole King interviewed on CNN
Carole King interviewed on CNN by Brianna Keilar, Oct. 15, 2021.

Two people whose names are rarely if ever mentioned together will testify about wildfires before Congress Wednesday March 16. Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Randy Moore and singer-songwriter Carole King will appear before the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment in a hearing titled “Fighting Fire with Fire: Evaluating the Role of Forest Management in Reducing Catastrophic Wildfires.”

The stated purpose of the hearing is “to examine the urgent need for the federal government to adopt better wildfire preparation measures, and discuss the human toll of wildfires that are becoming larger and more severe due to drought, global warming, and other climate stressors.”

The hearing will discuss several strategies the Forest Service employs to mitigate wildfires including prescribed burns, thinning, and commercial logging, as well as the challenges the Forest Service faces, such as a tight budget and an influential commercial logging industry.

Ms. King is a longtime environmental activist and this will not be her first time on Capitol Hill. On October 15, 2021 she was interviewed on CNN by Brianna Keilar about some of the logging and other environmental provisions that were in one of the infrastructure bills that were before Congress.

The March 16 hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. ET and should be available live on YouTube, embedded below.


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