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, some of 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.

Comprehensive fire funding fix could be passed this week

The new system is included in the proposed omnibus legislation

Above: Thomas Fire, Ventura, California, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 8:09 a.m. MDT March 22, 2018)

After years of dithering, Congress appears to be on track to finally significantly change the way wildfires are funded, no longer robbing dollars from fire prevention or totally unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. One insider in Washington calls it the long-anticipated “comprehensive funding fix”.

The changes are part of the omnibus legislation that likely will be voted on on Friday. The bill also funds most of the government, which will have to shut down Saturday if it does not pass. Of course anything could happen between now and then, but this is the closest we have been to a meaningful solution.

If passed it would begin in fiscal year 2020 and run through 2027, improving the two aspects of fire funding that have created major problems:

  1. In years when fire suppression costs are very high, it would use a budget cap adjustment to fund a new account which will receive an extra $2.3 to $3.0 billion a year. The amount will increase by $100 million each year. This should reduce the need to rob money from unrelated accounts in bad fire seasons. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are depleted.
  2. It will freeze the 10-year average computation of fire suppression costs at the 2015 level, $1.4 billion. This is even more important than the first change. Congress directs the Forest Service to fund the fire organization at the 10-year average of costs. That would be fine, except that the total budget for the FS remains the same year after year, while fire costs keep increasing. So even before the fire season starts, the agency has to take money from other accounts to give to fire management. And, this money is not later paid back, unlike the funds that are taken later in the year to pay for a bad fire season.

These TWO changes are why the insider calls this a “comprehensive funding fix”. Simply creating a new, unconnected account for emergency fire suppression would be only part of a solution.

But if the total budget for the Forest Service continues to be locked in at the same amount year after year, funding the fire organization at the 2015 10-year average is still going to be very difficult. The third part of the fire funding fix would be to stop cutting, in real dollars, the amount appropriated to the Forest Service.

Other provisions in the omnibus bill would increase the budget for the National Park Service by 8 percent and include $154 million to apply toward the $11.6 billion infrastructure repair backlog.

The legislation also reduces environmental analysis procedures on projects that treat hazardous fuels.

The press releases are flying as politicians praise, and in some cases, take partial credit for the changes in fire funding. The two Colorado Senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, are in favor of the changes:

“The pressures that wildfires have brought to the West, as well as the challenges of climate change and development, the antiquated way we pay for firefighting needed dramatic change,” Sen. Bennet (D) said in a news release. “This bipartisan fix transforms and modernizes the Forest Service’s capacity to restore forest health and mitigate and fight wildfires.”

Sen. Gardner (R) also said the funding bill will go a long way to help federal agencies tasked with fighting fires.

“Year after year, much of the West is forced to deal with horrible wildfires that burn millions of acres, and funding that should be applied to fire prevention and mitigation projects is instead spent by the Forest Service fighting these fires. Our provision will ensure the Forest Service has the necessary funding for cleanup and prevention efforts that will help reduce the amount of catastrophic wildfires the Forest Service has to fight,” Gardner said.

The Senators in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho issued similar statements.

Legislation would provide “Holy Grail” for wildland firefighters

Senate Bill 2209 would enhance situational awareness for firefighters

Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire
Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two U.S. Senators are co-sponsoring a bill that would enhance the safety and situational awareness of wildland firefighters. Senate Bill 2290 would be an important step toward what we have called the “Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety”. This concept would provide the real time location of a wildfire and the resources working on the incident. Too often fatalities have occurred when firefighters did not know where the fire was or overhead personnel were not aware of the position of firefighters who were endangered by the quickly spreading fire. Or both at the same time.

The legislation would require the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to jointly develop and operate “a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams”.

A complimentary requirement in the bill is “unmanned aircraft systems to [supply] real-time maps, detect spot fires, assess fire behavior, develop tactical and strategic firefighting plans, position fire resources, and enhance firefighter safety”.

The sponsoring Senators are a Democrat and a Republican, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO). Since the bill was introduced January 10, 2018 no further action has taken place and no additional Senators have signed on, so it appears there is not much momentum pushing it through the process.

Here are the first two paragraphs in a press release issued by Senator Gardner’s office:

Washington D.C. —U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017, a bill designed to bring firefighting agencies into the 21st century.

This bill will increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and to begin 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.

It is nice to see that at least two Senators are thinking about firefighter safety.

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

OpEd: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

Firefighting and warfighting are both expensive

Above: Whoopup Fire, Wyoming, 2011

(This was first published on Fire Aviation)

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!