Bill to provide real-time location of fires and firefighters sent to the President

The legislation passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support

firefighter radio White Draw Fire
A firefighter on the White Draw Fire uses a radio to coordinate with other firefighters. July 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill that directs the federal land management agencies to begin implementing a system that would enhance the situational awareness of wildland firefighters has passed both the House and the Senate and is awaiting the signature of the President.

On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act with a vote of 92 to 8, and yesterday the House passed it 363 to 62.

The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives.

Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

“I am proud that our Public Lands package passed the House yesterday and that we were able to include in it Senator Cantwell and Senator Gardner’s seminal bill to better equip our firefighters”, said Senator Joe Manchin, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It is plain to see that wildfires are getting worse not better, and I want to ensure these brave men and women have access to the tools available that will keep them safe, as they work to keep us safe.”

The key points, below, in the legislation have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

    • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
    • 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. (within 180 days)
    • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years)  According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell, by the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.
    • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
    • Assign air quality resource advisors to Type 1 incidents managing a fire on federal land. (no time requirement)
    • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)

The bill does not appropriate any additional funding to implement the real-time tracking provision. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the estimated $8 million cost is “insignificant” in the overall billions of dollars spent on wildland fire. Discussions behind the scenes in Washington are centered around small tracking devices being included in kits available from the wildland fire warehouse system which can be ordered by incident management teams the same way they order radio kits. The devices could then be distributed to personnel and other resources on fires. The newer Bendix-King radios used by firefighters already have GPS receivers which could be used to provide location data in a tracking system.

Now the question becomes, will the federal land management agencies actually implement the program to track the real-time location of fires and firefighters, or will they slow-walk it into oblivion like the Congressional orders to purchase a new air tanker, convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers, and the repeated requests from the GAO and Inspector General to provide data about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft?


(UPDATE February 28, 2019)

Senate passes bill that would enhance the situational awareness of wildland firefighters

Passed on a 92 to 8 vote

On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act on a vote of 92 to 8. It directs the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to implement systems that would enhance the situational awareness capability of wildland firefighters — knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. This will affect firefighters in five federal agencies: National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service.

Sen. Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul

A last minute attempt by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to add an amendment authorizing the sale of some U.S. Forest Service land in his state was shot down.

The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.

Now the bill goes to the House of Representatives where it will likely be considered after the mid-February recess.

More details about the legislation.

Legislation advances that could enhance the safety of wildland firefighters

Their lives are as important as soldiers

Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park
The site in Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park where 19 firefighters died in the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30, 2013 in Arizona. The crew did not know the exact real-time location of the fire, and others assumed the firefighters were in a different, and safe, location. Photo by Arizona State Parks.

(UPDATED at 5 p.m. MST February 12, 2019)

On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act described below with a vote of 92 to 8. It directs the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to implement systems to enhance the situational awareness capability of wildland firefighters. A last minute attempt by Senator Rand Paul to authorize the sale of some U.S. Forest Service land in Kentucky was shot down.

The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.

Now the bill goes to the House of Representatives where it will likely be considered after the mid-February recess.


(Originally published at 2:49 p.m. MST February 7, 2019)

A bill that was introduced a year ago in the 2017-2018 Congress that could enhance the safety of wildland firefighters has been resurrected in the new Congress. Last year S.2290, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2018 looked like it had a chance of being passed after being approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in December.

Most of the provisions in the bill have now been incorporated into an omnibus bill, a conglomeration of over 100 pieces of legislation combined into one huge lands bill that is hundreds of pages long. It is designated as Senate Bill 47, the Natural Resources Management Act and has 15 bipartisan sponsors — 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and one independent.

In a February 5 procedural vote 99 out of 100 senators voted yes. Rand Paul of Kentucky was the lone dissenter. But it still needs full passage from the Senate and the House and of course a signature by the President.

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives.

Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

We were told by a staffer in Washington that articles on Wildfire Today in which we wrote about the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety were distributed on Capital Hill to inform legislators about the issue.

The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

    • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
    • 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. (within 180 days)
    • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years)
    • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
    • Assign air quality resource advisors to Type 1 incidents managing a fire on federal land. (no time requirement)
    • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)

This version of the bill removes the previous requirement to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires.

The bill does not appropriate any additional funding to implement the real-time tracking provision. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the estimated $8 million cost is “insignificant” in the overall billions of dollars spent on wildland fire. Discussions behind the scenes in Washington are centered around small tracking devices being included in kits available from the wildland fire warehouse system which can be ordered by incident management teams the same way they order radio kits. The devices could then be distributed to personnel and other resources on fires. The newer Bendix-King radios used by firefighters already have GPS receivers which could be used to provide location data in a tracking system.

There is no routine annual funding for the land management agencies in this bill. That is addressed in H.R.266 which has not been passed. If the agencies are not funded they will be subject another government shutdown on February 15.

In the video below published on February 4, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to favor passage of the bill — beginning at 1:30.

Legislation advances toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

esperanza fire fatalities
Five firefighters that worked on this engine were killed on the Esperanza Fire October 26, 2006 while protecting an unoccupied house. The firefighters did not know the location of the fire, and their Division Supervisor thought the crew was at a different, and safe, location.  A similar situation occurred on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 where 19 firefighters were killed. The crew did not know the location of the fire and others assumed they were in a different, and safe, location. Photo from the official Esperanza Fire fatality report.

A Senate Bill introduced in January of this year took an important step through the legislative process Tuesday. The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, Senate Bill 2290, was approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It still has to be acted upon in the House of Representatives and the full Senate but this unanimous vote in committee is a good sign. It was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Cory Gardner (R-CO).

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Experanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives. Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

  • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
  • 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. (within 1 year)
  • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 1 year)
  • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
  • Assign air resource advisors to Type 1 incidents. (no time requirement)
  • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)
  • Conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires. (within 1 year)

A press release issued by Senator Cantwell’s office (below) gave a shout-out to Wildfire Today for our relentless pursuit of the Holy Grail. Here is the complete text:


Cantwell Bill to Modernize Firefighting Technology Passes Committee

Legislation would bring state-of-the-art technology, including real-time mapping and GPS locators, to firelines across the country

Washington, D.C. — Today, at a business meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – the committee’s top Democrat –  secured passage of her bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act. The bill passed through committee unanimously.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), increases the use of technology to keep firefighters and communities safe, better reduce the risks from wildfires, and increase the effectiveness of wildfire response.

“We owe it to the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight wildfires to equip them with the best available technology, to keep them safe, and to ensure their efforts are effective,” said Senator Cantwell in her opening statement before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Included in the bill are measures to increase firefighter safety by providing crews on wildfires with GPS locators and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety. The bill also helps protect families and communities by assisting with smoke forecasting and planning for the impacts of smoke from wildfires.

Continue reading “Legislation advances toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety”

217 scientists sign letter opposing logging as a response to wildfires

The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill would expand logging on public lands

One of the favorite responses of some politicians to devastating wildfires is to call for increased logging on public lands. Their reasoning is that having fewer trees will prevent large fires. The fact is that logging does not eliminate forest fires. For example, in a clear cut there is still fuel remaining, especially if the slash is left untreated, which can spread a fire faster than a forested area and can act as spot fire traps with dry, easily ignitable vegetation that is even more susceptible to propagating a fire from airborne burning embers up to a mile away from the main fire.

The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill being considered now would expand logging on public lands in response to recent increases in wildfires. A group of 217 scientists, educators, and land managers have signed an open letter calling on decision makers to facilitate a civil dialogue and careful consideration of the science to ensure that any policy changes will result in communities being protected while safeguarding essential ecosystem processes.

Below is an excerpt from the scientists’ letter:


What Is Active Management and Does It Work to Reduce Fire Activity?

Active management has many forms and needs to be clearly defined in order to understand whether it is effective at influencing fire behavior. Management can either increase or decrease flammable vegetation, is effective or ineffective in dampening fire effects depending on many factors, especially fire weather, and has significant limitations and substantial ecological tradeoffs.

Thinning Is Ineffective in Extreme Fire Weather – Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. When fire weather is not extreme, thinning-from-below of small diameter trees followed by prescribed fire, and in some cases prescribed fire alone, can reduce fire severity in certain forest types for a limited period of time. However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days. Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.  Thinning also requires an extensive and expensive roads network that degrades water quality by altering hydrological functions, including chronic sediment loads.

Post-disturbance Salvage Logging Reduces Forest Resilience and Can Raise Fire Hazards – Commonly practiced after natural disturbances (such as fire or beetle activity), post-disturbance clearcut logging hinders forest resilience by compacting soils, killing natural regeneration of conifer seedlings and shrubs associated with forest renewal, increases fine fuels from slash left on the ground that aids the spread of fire, removes the most fire-resistant large live and dead trees, and degrades fish and wildlife habitat. Roads, even “temporary ones,” trigger widespread water quality problems from sediment loading. Forests that have received this type of active management typically burn more severely in forest fires.

Wilderness and Other Protected Areas Are Not Especially Fire Prone – Proposals to remove environmental protections to increase logging for wildfire concerns are misinformed. For instance, scientists recently examined the severity of 1,500 forest fires affecting over 23 million acres during the past four decades in 11 western states. They found fires burned more severely in previously logged areas, while fires burned in natural fire mosaic patterns of low, moderate and high severity, in wilderness, parks, and roadless areas, thereby, maintaining resilient forests.

Consequently, there is no legitimate reason for weakening environmental safeguards to curtail fires nor will such measures protect communities.

Closing Remarks and Need for Science-based Solutions

The recent increase in wildfire acres burning is due to a complex interplay involving human-caused climate change coupled with expansion of homes and roads into fire-adapted ecosystems and decades of industrial-scale logging practices. Policies should be examined that discourage continued residential growth in ecosystems that evolved with fire. The most effective way to protect existing homes is to ensure that they are as insusceptible to burning as possible (e.g., fire resistant building materials, spark arresting vents and rain-gutter guards) and to create defensible space within a 100-foot radius of a structure. Wildland fire policy should fund defensible space, home retrofitting measures and ensure ample personnel are available to discourage and prevent human-caused wildfire ignitions. Ultimately, in order to stabilize and ideally slow global temperature rise, which will increasingly affect how wildfires burn in the future, we also need a comprehensive response to climate change that is based on clean renewable energy and storing more carbon in ecosystems.

Public lands were established for the public good and include most of the nation’s remaining examples of intact ecosystems that provide clean water for millions of Americans, essential wildlife habitat, recreation and economic benefits to rural communities, as well as sequestering vast quantities of carbon. When a fire burns down a home it is tragic; when fire burns in a forest it is natural and essential to the integrity of the ecosystem, while also providing the most cost effective means of reducing fuels over large areas. Though it may seem to laypersons that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe, numerous studies tell us that even in the patches where fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most biologically diverse in the West.

For these reasons, we urge you to reject misplaced logging proposals that will damage our environment, hinder climate mitigation goals, and will fail to protect communities from wildfire.

Forest Service Chief testifies about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

(This article first appeared at Fire Aviation)

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.