Appropriations in coronavirus bill would affect firefighters

The U.S. Forest Service will receive $70.8 million

U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The coronavirus legislation, which passed late Wednesday night in the Senate 96 to zero, would send checks to more than 100 million Americans, establish loan programs for businesses, supplement unemployment insurance programs, and boost spending for hospitals. The House is expected to pass it either Friday or Saturday.

Of the $2.2 trillion allocated in the legislation, $70.8 in the four bullet points below is set aside for the U.S. Forest Service. The bill specifies that the funds shall be allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service. The page numbers refer to a copy of the legislation at Politico.com that passed the Senate.

  • P. 715: $3.0 M, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for the reestablishment of abandoned or failed experiments associated with employee restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • P. 716: $34.0 M, for the U.S. Forest Service to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for cleaning and disinfecting of public recreation amenities and for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.
  • P. 717: $26.8 M, for ‘‘Capital Improvement and Maintenance’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for janitorial services.
  • P. 717: $7.0 M, for ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.

The four items above are very similar to the language in the version of the bill that failed to pass the Senate on Sunday and Monday.

There is no specific allocation of funds for wildland fire programs in the Department of the Interior, where four of the nine major agencies are land management agencies with fire programs. However, on page 711 you will see that $158.4 million is appropriated department-wide and the Secretary of the Interior is granted authority to use the funds anywhere in the Department to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.

FEMA will receive $100 M (page 703) for Assistance to Firefighter Grants for the purchase of personal protective equipment and related supplies, including reimbursements.

Congress considers additional Forest Service funding for COVID-19 pandemic

Funds are likely to be eventually appropriated to help at least one firefighting agency address some of the issues created by the virus

Smokejumpers attack wildfire
Smokejumpers prepare to attack a wildfire. NIFC.

A bill introduced in the Senate to help Americans and businesses deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic contained language to beef up the budget of the U.S. Forest Service (FS), but it failed to pass Sunday [UPDATE: and during a second attempt on Monday]. The $1.8 trillion bill included $71 million, or 0.004 percent of the total, for the FS to address the crisis. The funds were intended for personal protective equipment, health testing for first responders, cleaning, maintenance, and disinfecting but were to be “allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service”, to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

The legislation appears to have been hurriedly drafted, probably within the last few days. I was not able to find any specific funding in the bill for the four agencies in the Department of the Interior that have wildfire responsibilities. If it had been written in January, a month after the outbreak began, there would have been more time to put together a comprehensive budget for all five firefighting agencies that would appropriate a substantial amount for directly increasing the ability to fight fires.

It is likely that the number of firefighters available to respond to wildfires through next year will be decreased as 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire.

Under these conditions, it will be difficult to use 100 percent of the usual capacity of the firefighting agencies. If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from anyone on the ground infected with the virus.

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. Attacking new fires with overwhelming force would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing during an emergency is a danger to society.

In order to better protect our homeland from wildfires during the pandemic the amount of additional funds appropriated for the five firefighting agencies in this bill needs to be increased by a factor of 10 or 20. Instead of 13 or 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts there should be 40, and the Type 1 helicopter numbers should increase from 28 to 50. The fleets of smaller air tankers and helicopters also need to be beefed up.

Having said that, air tankers don’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area.

If we expect to maintain the ability to fight wildfires, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.

Statements from five presidential candidates about wildland fire

They were asked about how to break the cycle of more severe weather, homes in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for more catastrophic fires in the future

North Pole Fire South Dakota
Chain saw operator on the North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD March 10, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In an effort to provide for our readers information about positions the presidential candidates have taken on wildland fire issues, today we have the second article in the series. Earlier this month we searched the websites of the candidates and were able to find the issue addressed by only one, Mike Bloomberg, which we put in a February 15 article.

We wrote:

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential Candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

After seeing that article one of our readers, Su Britting, informed us that she had seen a piece in the Desert Sun featuring the candidates’ responses to a fire-related question posed by a Research Scientist for the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at the University of California at Davis.

Below is an excerpt from the article, used here with permission from Executive Editor Julie Makinen. The only part not included are a few introductory paragraphs written by the reporter, Sam Metz. The candidates’ statements in the Desert Sun article are included in their entirety.


…We enlisted Professor Malcolm North, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at UC Davis, to ask the candidates running in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary a question about wildfire policy.

North wanted to see how candidates would balance California’s need for more housing with the hazards of building in wildfire-prone regions and how they’d address concerns surrounding fire suppression and its potential to exacerbate the problem. Each candidate was given the same set of questions to answer within a specific timeframe.  Some campaigns responded in the third person (e.g. “Senator Klobuchar believes …”) while other candidates responded themselves (e.g. “As president, I’ll invest …”). Candidates that are not featured did not provide a response.

Like most of the western United States, California’s wildfires are becoming more destructive with more severe weather, unchecked home building in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for larger, more catastrophic fires in the future. As president, how would you do to help break this cycle for the sake of both people and ecosystems? — Malcolm North, Research Scientist, U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Elizabeth Warren: Climate change is an existential threat to all life on this planet — and Californians are already seeing the dangers of climate change first hand.  Elizabeth Warren is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution and has more than 10 climate plans that detail how a Warren administration will achieve domestic net zero emissions by 2030.

Wildfires pose an especially serious threat to low-income communities, people with disabilities, and seniors. That’s why Elizabeth has committed to:

  • Improving fire mapping and prevention by investing in advanced modeling with a focus on helping the most vulnerable — incorporating not only fire vulnerability but community demographics.
  • Prioritize these data to invest in land management, particularly near the most vulnerable communities, supporting forest restoration, lowering fire risk, and creating jobs all at once.
  • Invest in microgrid technology, so that we can de-energize high-risk areas when required without impacting the larger community’s energy supply.
  • Collaborate with Tribal governments on land management practices to reduce wildfires, including by incorporating traditional ecological practices and exploring co-management and the return of public resources to indigenous protection wherever possible.

She’s also committed to prioritizing at-risk populations in disaster planning and response and strengthening rules to require disaster response plans to uphold the rights of vulnerable populations. A Warren administration will center a right to return for individuals who have been displaced during a disaster and while relocation should be a last resort, when it occurs, she is committed to improving living standards and keeping communities together whenever possible.

Pete Buttigieg: California’s devastating wildfires are one example of the accelerated impacts of climate change. This is one of the most pressing security challenges of our era and it will absolutely be a top priority under my administration. To stem the impacts of climate change my administration will get our country to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, by implementing a bold and achievable Green New Deal. We will enact a price on carbon and use the revenue to send rebates directly to Americans’ pockets. We will also quadruple federal clean energy R&D funding to invest more than $200 billion in developing new technologies as well as create three investment funds to spur clean technology development and fund locally-led clean energy projects, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Promoting resilient infrastructure is crucial to preparing communities against climate change. The American Clean Energy Bank and Regional Resilience Hubs that I am proposing will finance local investments in resilient infrastructure. My administration will develop federal guidelines for investments in and implementation of new approaches, including nature-based solutions, that make our natural resources and communities safer and more resilient. We will also establish a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather Insurance (CEWI) program to provide stability to individuals and communities who experience the major disruptions caused by climate change and other natural risks such as earthquakes. We will build a resilient nation that can stand up to the extreme weather and sea level rise we are already facing, and lead the world in bringing our international partners and local leaders together to solve this crisis.

Tom Steyer: I began this campaign because despite several Democratic candidates talking about the climate crisis, the seriousness of the threat was not getting the attention it demanded.  I am the only candidate who will make addressing climate change my number one priority as President of the United States. Climate change doesn’t just represent a serious threat — it is also a great opportunity to build a sustainable American infrastructure and an economy that restores prosperity to all Americans, not just the wealthy. In order to break the cycle of the catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to build resilient infrastructure and a renewable economy. We also need to invest in individual ecosystems (forests, lakes, oceans) in the context of climate change. This will mean undoing the negligence of the Trump administration’s policies and creating collaboration between the states and the federal government to address the problems of designing, building and maintaining climate-resilient communities.

As part of my Justice Centered Climate Plan, I will invest nearly $500 billion in the upkeep and protection of our watersheds, wetlands, national parks, and forests — and this includes fire management as well as protecting our clean drinking water. Because while some of the impacts of climate change are already here, there are levelheaded preventative measures we can take to protect ourselves and our forests from the worst dangers. My plan puts $555 billion into developing climate-smart communities and housing and an additional $755 billion into adaptation, resilience, and green infrastructure. This will ensure that the people who are displaced from fires and flooding have affordable places to live with access to green space. And it will also ensure that they have good-paying jobs building our new climate-resilient infrastructure, protecting our lands and waters, and serving communities hit by the climate crisis as long-term disaster recovery workers.

Bernie Sanders: We’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change. In California, 15 of the 20 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000. We must invest now in mitigating these more frequent and severe wildfires, making our infrastructure more resilient, and preparing for disaster response. We must change our framework of fire suppression and forest management to take the whole local ecosystem into account, including the rural communities who are most vulnerable.

In California, developers are building houses in fire hazard zones, a move partially driven by the housing shortage. Bernie is committed to fully closing the 7.4 million unit shortage of affordable housing to guarantee housing to all as a right. We will work to ensure housing growth is climate-resilient, with experts and impacted communities included every step of the way.

We’ll expand the wildfire restoration and disaster preparedness workforce. We’ll increase federal funding for firefighting by $18 billion to deal with the increased severity and frequency of wildfires. Furthermore, we must facilitate community evacuation plans that include people experiencing homelessness, and increase social cohesion for rapid and resilient disaster recovery to avoid the use of martial law and increased policing in disaster response.

We’ll also amend the Stafford Act to ensure that FEMA ensures that recovery and rebuilding efforts make affected communities stronger than they were before the disaster so they are more resilient to the next disaster.

Michael Bloomberg: First and most importantly, we’ve got to act aggressively to curb the carbon pollution and climate change that is like pouring accelerant on our western forests, making fires bigger and more catastrophic — this will be a top priority for my presidency. In addition, we’ve got to transition from the old fire suppression approach to managing our forests to restore healthy ecosystems that are inherently more resilient to catastrophic fire.

I’m calling for an effort on the scale of FDR’s response to the Dust Bowl, making this a top priority for the Forest Service. I will direct them to work with other federal land agencies, states, tribes, and local communities to develop a far-reaching fire prevention and management plan for each state at risk, aiming to reduce the loss of lives and property by half within four years.

Fire management and the presidential election

As we have said often here at Wildfire Today, we do not get into politics unless it directly affects firefighters or fire management. And there is nothing more political than a presidential election.

However, I ran across an op-ed written by Ken Pimlott, former chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who mentioned that one candidate has a wildfire plan. I do not recall any major candidate saying much about wildland fire, so it got my attention.

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

The candidate Chief Pimlott wrote about is Mike Bloomberg. Below is the text from his “Wildfire Resilience” webpage:


Lead a Nationwide Effort to Strengthen the Nation’s Resilience against Wildfires

Responsibility for preventing and fighting fires crosses multiple jurisdictions and interests — federal, state, local, private and tribal. In the West in particular, multiple landowners can be involved between the point where a fire starts and where it causes the most damage. This kind of large-scale action demands strong leadership and coordination. To ensure our country is protected from future harm and is equipped to mitigate future damages, Mike knows that it’s up to the federal government, as the majority landowner of forests in the West, to take the lead. Mike’s plan will:

  • Make fire resilience a top priority of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as other federal land management agencies. Task the agency with coordinating the development of a far-reaching new plan for firefighting and fire prevention for each Western state.
  • Increase collaboration among all levels of government, and public and private sectors. The Forest Service will work with other federal partners, local communities, state and local agencies, tribal leaders, environmental groups, private timber companies, rural land owners, utilities and the insurance industry to develop region- or state-specific plans with the goal of reducing life and property loss by half within four years.
  • Improve community resilience and prevent redlining by the insurance industry. Collaborative fire protection plans will include measures to reduce risk to communities and property, minimize damages in case of fire, and thereby improve the chances of getting or maintaining insurance, so that current homeowners who don’t have alternatives aren’t left without the ability to insure for disasters.

Continue reading “Fire management and the presidential election”

California Governor’s proposed budget would add 677 firefighters

If approved, the budget would also establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center

S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera.

In his proposed $222 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year beginning July 1, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put forth several initiatives that if approved by the legislature could have a significant effect on wildland firefighting in the state. The budget refers to “the new normal fire conditions” and the need to mitigate long periods of fighting fires without respite.

Additional funding for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) would include $120 million in 2020-2021 and $150 ongoing for each of the following four years. This would enable the creation of 677 more positions phased in over five years resulting in operational flexibility through peak fire season and beyond, based on fire conditions. These positions would:

  1. Provide coverage behind personnel vacations, sick days, training, and during predicted weather events and major incidents.
  2. Provide a resource pool to staff additional engines on the shoulder seasons if it becomes necessary to increase the staffing on the existing 65 year-round engines.
  3. Add a fourth firefighter on a portion of CAL FIRE engines as fire conditions dictate.

The budget includes $9 million to establish a Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center staffed by 22 positions to identify current wildfire threats and improve situational awareness of conditions in real-time.

The proposed budget sets aside $100 million for CAL FIRE and OES to administer a home hardening pilot program, with a focus on homes located in low-income communities in areas of high fire risk. The program would also fund 26 positions for defensible space inspections.

The budget approved for the 2019-2020 fiscal year included funds to operate the HC-130H aircraft that will be converted to air tankers, continue the replacement of the 12 aging Bell Super Huey Helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70I Firehawks, and operate 100 additional fire detection cameras.

NASF supports legislation to enable greater sharing of firefighting resources

Swan Lake Fire
Swan Lake Fire in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, June 12, 2019, 5 miles east of the community of Sterling, Alaska. InciWeb photo.

From the National Association of State Foresters

The National Association of State Foresters is calling on Congress to introduce and pass legislation that will allow resource sharing among states and Canadian provinces for the express purpose of fighting wildfires.

“To better protect Americans from wildfire, our states need Congress to enact federal legislation to address liability concerns for Forest Fire Compact resource exchanges,” Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday. “Current federal and state legislation doesn’t provide adequate liability protections to compacts so that they can freely exchange emergency response personnel and resources like firefighting aircraft. In effect, some states are unable to mobilize critical resources across compact boundaries.”

Chris Maisch, Alaska State Forester
Chris Maisch, Alaska State Forester, testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee June 13, 2019.

Across North America, there are eight operating Forest Fire Compacts. Each compact includes several state members, and a few even include Canadian provinces. Within each compact, wildfire fighting resources and personnel can be deployed quickly and efficiently from state-to-state to suppress wildfires. But under current legislation, compact-to-compact sharing of resources is limited.

For example, the Southern Forest Fire Compacts are reluctant to accept resources from the Northeast and Northwest Forest Fire Compacts because the latter compacts don’t have inter-compact liability protection language in their statutes. The Northwest Compact does not accept or export any resources on a compact-to-compact basis for the same reason. This lack of compact-to-compact liability protection means that half of states (and several Canadian provinces) aren’t able to share wildfire fighting resources, even in times of extreme emergency.

“The first Forest Fire Compact was established in 1949 as a way for states to share firefighting resources crucial to managing wildfires efficiently,” said Jay Farrell, NASF executive director. “NASF and the Alliance for Forest Fire Compacts are urging Congress to give these compacts a fix, allowing more life-saving resources to be deployed for wildfire response.”