Bill introduced to promote prescribed fire intends to reduce fire risk

It would appropriate $300M annually for the federal land management agencies’ prescribed fire programs. But are there other ways to reduce fire risk?

September 24, 2020 | 8:10 a.m. MDT

American Elk prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park
A firefighter ignites the American Elk prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 20, 2010. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would make large sums of money available to increase the number of acres treated with prescribed fire (also known as controlled burns).

It has been fashionable during the last two years to blame “forest management” for the large, devastating wildfires that have burned thousands of homes in California. According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Research conducted in 2019 to identify barriers to conducting prescribed fires found that in the 11 western states the primary reasons cited were lack of adequate capacity and funding, along with a need for greater leadership direction and incentives. Barriers related to policy requirements tended to be significant only in specific locations or situations, such as smoke regulations in the Pacific Northwest or protecting specific threatened and endangered species.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, Senate Bill 4625, which was introduced last week by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and two cosponsors, would help address the capacity issue by appropriating $300 million for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan, prepare, and conduct controlled burns on federal, state, and private lands. It would also provide $10 million for controlled burns on county, state and private land that are at high risk of burning in a wildfire. Additionally, the bill establishes an incentive program that would provide $100,000 to a State, county, and Federal agency for any controlled burns larger than 50,000 acres. (Summary and text of the bill)

In order to carry out the projects, the legislation would establish a workforce development program at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to develop, train, and hire prescribed fire practitioners, and creates employment programs for Tribes, veterans, women, and those formerly incarcerated.

In an effort to address air quality control barriers,  the bill “Requires state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns, and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.” The legislation will allow some prescribed fire projects larger than 1,000 acres to be exempt from air quality regulations.

Our Take

Appropriating more funds and hiring additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires could definitely result in more acres treated. If the bill passes, it would be a large step in the right direction. It is notable that the bill specifically mentions hiring those who were formerly incarcerated. Those who served time for non-violent offenses often deserve another chance, especially if they learned the firefighting trade on a state or county inmate fire crew.

There are many benefits of prescribed fires, including more control over the adverse health effects of smoke, improving forest health, and returning fire to dependent ecosystems.

But it gets complicated when prescribed fire is expected to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, as cited in a release issued last week by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Scenario #1, Moderate fire conditions

There is no doubt that if a wildfire is spreading under moderate conditions of fuels and weather (especially wind), when the blaze moves into an area previously visited by any kind of fire the rate of spread, intensity, and resistance to control will decrease. Firefighters will have a better chance of stopping it at that location. The size of that earlier fire footprint will be a factor in the effectiveness of stopping the entire fire, since the wildfire may burn through, around, or over it by spotting. The availability of firefighting resources to quickly take advantage of what may be a temporary reduction in intensity is also critical. Unless the prescribed fire occurred within the last year or so there is usually adequate fuel to carry a fire (such as grass, leaves, or dead and down woody fuel) depending on the vegetation type and time of year. It is much like using fire retardant dropped by air tankers. Under ideal conditions, the viscous liquid will slow the spread long enough for firefighters on the ground to move in and put out the fire in that area. If those resources are not available, the blaze may eventually burn through or around the retardant.

Scenario #2, Extreme fire conditions

The wildfires that burn hundreds or thousands of homes usually occur during extreme conditions. What the most disastrous fires have in common is drought, low fuel moisture, low relative humidity, and most importantly, strong wind. In the last few weeks in California and Oregon we have seen blazes under those conditions spread for dozens of miles in 24 hours.

Rich McCrea, the Fire Behavior Analyst on the recent North Complex near Quincy, CA, said the wind on September 8 pushed the fire right through areas in forests that had been clear cut, running 30 miles in about 18 hours.

We can’t log our way out of the fire problem.

Sheltering from the Creek Fire at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir
Burning embers lofted by the Creek Fire are seen as people are sheltering from the Creek Fire at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir Boat Launch, Sept. 5, 2020 in Northern California. Photo by Cameron Colombero, via Mike Ikahihifo.

On September 8, 2020 the Almeda Drive Fire burned 3,200 acres in Southern Oregon — it was not a huge fire, but there were huge losses. The 40 to 45 mph wind aligned with the Interstate 5 corridor as it burned like a blowtorch for 8 miles, starting north of Ashland and tearing through the cities of Talent and Phoenix. Approximately 2,357 structures were destroyed — but not all by a massive flaming front. Burning embers carried up to thousands of feet by the fire landed in receptive fuels near or on some structures, setting them alight.

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
A portion of the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

What can be done to reduce fire losses?

Jack Cohen is a retired U.S. Forest Service Research fire scientist who has spent years determining how structures ignite during extreme wildfires. In a September 21, 2020 article he wrote for Wildfire Today with Dave Strohmaier, they addressed how homes ignite during extreme wildfires.

“Surprisingly, research has shown that home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ – to homes directly and nearby flammables leading to homes. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the minuscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential fuels – homes, other structures, and vegetation – continue fire spread within the community.

“Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable, however, by reducing home ignition potential within the HIZ we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.”

"Community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem." Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier.

Again, prescribed fire has many benefits to forests and ecosystems, and Congress would be doing the right thing to substantially increase its funding.

But in order to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, we need to think outside the box — look at where the actual problem presents itself. The HIZ.

I asked Mr. Cohen for his reaction to the proposed legislation that he and I were not aware of when the September 21 article was published.

“Ignition resistant homes, and collectively communities, can be readily created by eliminating and reducing ignition vulnerabilities within the HIZ,” Mr. Cohen wrote in an email. “This enables the prevention of wildland-urban fire disasters without necessarily controlling extreme wildfires. Ironically, ignition resistant homes and communities can facilitate appropriate ecological fire management using prescribed burning. The potential destruction of homes from escaped prescribed burns is arguably a principal obstacle for restoring fire as an appropriate ecological factor. Therefore, it is unlikely that ecologically significant prescribed burning at landscape scales will occur without ignition resistant homes and communities.”

Here are some suggestions that could be considered for funding along with an enhanced prescribed fire program.

  • Provide grants to homeowners that are in areas with high risk from wildland fires. Pay a portion of the costs of improvements or retrofits to structures and the nearby vegetation to make the property more fire resistant. This could include the cost of removing some of the trees in order to have the crowns at least 18 feet apart if they are within 30 feet of the structures — many homeowners can’t afford the cost of complete tree removal.
  • Cities and counties could establish systems and procedures for property owners to easily dispose of the vegetation and debris they remove.
  • Hire crews that can physically help property owners reduce the fuels near their homes when it would be difficult for them to do it themselves.
  • Provide grants to cities and counties to improve evacuation capability and planning, to create community safety zones for sheltering as a fire approaches, and to build or improve emergency water supplies to be used by firefighters.

Our article “Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities” has even more ideas.

Members of Congress call for increased support for wildfire preparedness

Warehouse at the National Interagency Fire Center
Warehouse at the National Interagency Fire Center. Screenshot from NIFC video.

On June 15 Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) led 18 members of Congress in the California Delegation in calling on House leadership to ensure that any future legislative package focused on infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation include robust funds to address deferred maintenance and wildland fire preparedness needs in the U.S. National Forest System.

“For a long time, the U.S. Forest Service has not received sufficient funding to adequately complete its necessary infrastructure projects.  That backlog increases the threat to communities across the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region, including California, as we move into the 2020 wildfire season,” said Congressman Panetta.  “As Congress considers legislation for infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation, we must fight for more funding for Forest Service projects that will not only generate jobs, but also give our federal firefighters the necessary tools to prepare for wildfires and keep our communities safe.”

“It is important to note that the current backlog of projects in the USFS Pacific Southwest Region is particularly concerning as the state of California progresses deeper into its 2020 wildfire season, with fire officials predicting higher-than-normal fire potential through the fall.  As the Region works to swiftly implement new wildfire suppression tactics to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread at base camps, it is all the more important that USFS employees have access to working infrastructure,” the members wrote.

The text of the letter sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is below:

June 15, 2020

Dear Speaker Pelosi and Leader McCarthy:

As Congress works to develop and disburse immediate relief to communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also consider the investments needed to bring tens of millions of people back to work to rebuild a stronger, more sustainable economy. To this end, we write to you to ensure that any future legislative package focused on infrastructure, economic stimulus, and job creation include robust funds to address deferred maintenance and wildland fire preparedness needs in the U.S. National Forest System.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across our nation have turned to National Forests as spaces to safely spend time outdoors while adhering to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) physical distancing guidelines. Additionally, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) roads and bridges are playing a key role in ensuring rural communities can safely reach grocery stores and hospitals during the pandemic. At the same time, our National Forest System is suffering from $5.2 billion worth of backlogged repairs for roads and road bridges, trails, and facilities, which far exceeds the $446 million included in the fiscal year 2019 USFS budget for infrastructure improvement and maintenance.

In the USFS Pacific Southwest Region, which includes eighteen national forests spanning 20 million acres of land in California, a recent Regional review identified over 90 deferred maintenance projects with critical safety components for administrative facilities, fire facilities, and employee housing, including five priority projects on each National Forest in the state. Completion of these projects would reduce maintenance costs, improve visitor experiences, support employee recruitment and retention, and allow for additional modifications needed to protect employees, particularly in light of COVID-19. Notably, funding these projects would also create hundreds of jobs across the state.

It is important to note that the current backlog of projects in the USFS Pacific Southwest Region is particularly concerning as the state of California progresses deeper into its 2020 wildfire season, with fire officials predicting higher-than-normal fire potential through the fall. As the Region works to swiftly implement new wildfire suppression tactics to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread at base camps, it is all the more important that USFS employees have access to working infrastructure.

To keep these federal employees and the rural communities they serve safe, we urge you to provide funding for the design and construction of new fire cache facilities and updated airtanker bases throughout the state. By replacing the debilitated and aging Northern and Southern Operations Geographic Area Caches, the USFS Pacific Southwest Region would be able to significantly reduce leasing costs and increase wildfire preparedness. Similarly, by updating the infrastructure at airtanker bases, the USFS would be able to generate jobs, more rapidly deploy large airtankers to the fire line, and enhance initial attack effectiveness to protect communities and firefighters.

In addition to prioritizing the aforementioned physical infrastructure projects, we urge you to include funding for technology updates needed to provide real-time tracking and response of firefighting resources, particularly during rapidly escalating wildfires. With upgraded information technology, firefighting teams will not only be able to virtually access weather and other incidental information but also share information in real time with other firefighting teams. This type of collaboration will significantly enhance the common operating picture for all levels of a firefighting organization.

For decades, the USFS has struggled with insufficient funds to address critical infrastructure needs, and every year, the backlog of projects becomes increasingly overwhelming. As the COVID-19 pandemic puts new and unknown pressures on our National Forest System, we cannot wait any longer to prioritize these projects.

Over the coming weeks, as you work to make critical funding decisions to address the current unemployment crisis, we ask that you strongly consider the high potential for USFS projects in the Pacific Southwest Region to create thousands of sustainable jobs, particularly during a time of heightened need for effective USFS services. As the Pacific Southwest Region has already completed a comprehensive review of projects, we encourage Congressional investments directly to the Region so these projects can move forward in a timely manner.


Jimmy Panetta
Member of Congress

Legislation introduced to provide benefits for families of firefighters killed by COVID-19

Senators are also seeking hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

David Ruhl memorial service
The memorial service for fallen U.S. Forest Service firefighter David Ruhl, Rapid City, SD August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to ensure families of public safety officers lost to COVID-19 can quickly access survivor benefits.

(UPDATE at 10:40 a.m. MDT May 15, 2020: the Senate passed the bill. Now it goes to the House of Representatives)

The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act (SAFR), led by senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), clarifies the certification requirements for survivor benefits under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program (PSOB) to account for the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Cruz (R-Texas), Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tillis (R-N.C.), Coons (D-Del.), Daines (R-Mont.), Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Scott (R-Fla.), Menendez (D-N.J.), Loeffler (R-Ga.), Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Moran (R-Kan.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The PSOB program provides the families of public safety officers who are killed in the line of duty with a one-time lump sum payment of $359,316 and/or education assistance of $1,224.00 per month to their children or spouse. Wildland firefighters who work for the federal agencies are included in the PSOB program.

Infectious diseases are covered under a line-of-duty death as long as evidence indicates that the infectious disease was contracted while on duty. Providing evidence that a deadly disease was contracted on duty can be straightforward in instances where an officer comes into contact with a dirty needle, however in the case of COVID-19, it can be very difficult to provide evidence that the virus was contracted on duty.

What the bill does:

  • Creates a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty, the Department of Justice will treat it as a line of duty incident.
  • The presumption will guarantee payment of benefits to any first responder who dies from COVID-19 or a complication therefrom.
  • The presumption will run from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021.
  • The presumption will require a diagnosis of COVID-19 or evidence indicating that the officer had COVID-19 at the time of death. This covers officers in high impact areas where finding tests can be difficult.

Another proposal – Hazard pay

A group of 19 Senators have sent letters  to the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget requesting 25 percent hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

The letter is below:

2020-05-05 Senators Letter … by FedSmith Inc. on Scribd

Firefighters that are already victims of COVID-19

Victor Stagnaro of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation said on May 8, 2020 they are tracking 26 people connected with fire departments and 30 Emergency Medical Services personnel whose deaths appear to be caused by COVID-19.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

The future of wildfire: a year-round challenge requires a year-round workforce

Seasonal firefighter positions need to be converted to career seasonal or full-time permanents

firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire in Nevada. The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 calls for a $50 million increase to hire more firefighters, converting many temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. (Photo courtesy BLM Nevada)

The nature of wildfire and the risks associated with it have changed dramatically in the last few decades. In most areas the window in which wildfires traditionally occur has grown from five to seven months of the year. Taking regional differences into account—California, Florida, and Montana burn at different times of the year—we no longer have “fire seasons” in the United States. We have “fire years.”

These changes are compounded by how much fires have grown. The average number of acres burned by decade is double what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Over that same time span, the wildland urban interface—those bits of land that blend housing and the natural, burnable world—has grown by 40%, putting more far more people at risk to wildfire.

Land managers around the world face significant challenges. The recent wildfires in Australia illustrate the gravity of the situation and the tremendous risk to communities. People in California continue to recover from wildfires that claimed lives and homes. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said earlier this year, “This is an issue that impacts the whole country, and we’re looking broadly at what we can do to reduce wildfire risk.”

The Department of the Interior recruits a workforce of thousands to manage wildland fire on public and Tribal lands across the country. Most of these people work in temporary appointments limited to six months. But if fires are no longer seasonal, should our workforce be?

The Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a proposal to greatly expand and stabilize the wildland fire workforce. It calls for a $50 million increase to fund an additional 601 full-time equivalents*, converting many of our temporary seasonal positions into career seasonal or full-time permanents. This funding would provide over one million additional labor hours every year, enabling us to respond to wildfires during peak periods and complete active vegetation management projects like prescribed fires during times of low fire activity.

Expanding our cadre of permanent employees builds resiliency and sustainability into our programs. On average, temporary seasonal employees remain on the job two years, while career seasonal employees serve an average of 14 years. Constantly hiring and training new people is not only expensive, it robs us of the experienced, knowledgeable, senior firefighters we so desperately need.

Establishing career appointment positions also provides firefighters a reliable income and year-round benefits like access to healthcare and support organizations. Firefighters deserve these things given the tasks that lie ahead for all of us.

*Full-time equivalent (or FTE) is the annual number of “work years” produced by employees. A “work year” is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.

Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).

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 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.