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.

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.