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.”

House approves amendment that could prevent transfer and closure of Job Corps Centers

Schenck Job Corps Center Chief Christiansen
Photo of the Schenck Job Corps Center in North Carolina September 26, 2018 operated by the Forest Service, taken during a visit by Forest Service Chief Christiansen (third from the left). The center was ranked as the number one Job Corps Center out of 123 nationwide during the program year that ended June 30, 2018.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 313-109 to approve an amendment to an appropriations bill that would preserve the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center program administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The Trump Administration’s intends to transfer the management of  25 Job Corps Centers from the Forest Service to the Department of Labor (DOL) and permanently close 9 of those 25 centers.

The amendment introduced by Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio would prohibit the government from spending any funds to “alter or terminate the Interagency Agreement between the United States Department of Labor and the United States Department of Agriculture governing the funding, establishment, and operation of Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers”. It would also prohibit funds being used to close any of the 25 Job Corps centers that are now operated by the Forest Service.

Transferring the Centers to the Department of Labor could result in the loss of over 1,000 jobs within the Forest Service.

The centers currently employ more than 1,100 people, operate in 17 national forests and grasslands across 16 states, and provide training to over 3,000 youth and young adults according to Congressman DeFazio.

Information from the U.S. Forest Service said 1,200 CCC students provided the equivalent of 450,000 hours of wildfire support during the height of the 2017 fire season.

If you would like to get into the weeds about how this amendment was introduced and debated on the floor of the House, you can read the transcript published in the Congressional Record, beginning on page H4541.

Representatives who spoke in favor of the bill during the debate included Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Dan Newhouse of Washington, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.

The lone representative speaking against the measure was Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. Interestingly, the Schenck Job Corps Center in her state was ranked as the number one Job Corps Center out of 123 nationwide during the program year that ended June 30, 2018.

A letter from the National Association of Home Builders backing the amendment was included in the official record. Here is an excerpt:

The recent termination of the Department of Agriculture’s training partnership with Job Corps and subsequent announcement by the Department of Labor (DOL) of nine center closures is deeply concerning to NAHB and its workforce development arm, the Home Builders Institute (HBI), which has trained and placed thousands of students for careers in residential construction through its 45-year partnership with Job Corps. HBI Job Corps programs are offered at 65 centers across the country, and have equipped at-risk youth with the skills and experience they need for successful careers through pre-apprenticeship training, job placement services, mentoring, certification programs, textbooks and curricula.

DOL’s planned Job Corps center closures stand to impact more than 43 construction training programs, six of which are operated by HBI at three of the affected locations. Many of these centers serve rural and dislocated communities and have enrollment numbers exceeding national and regional averages. However, the Department of Labor has not disclosed any performance metrics or data to support its closure determinations and it has provided little information on how it will continue to serve the thousands of at-risk youth who will be displaced from their local centers. Further, DOL has not informed contracted training partners like HBI whether their successfully operating programs–and their administering staff–will be relocated or simply terminated along with the centers they have served.

The amendment passed with a voice vote, but  Chip Roy of Texas objected and forced a recorded vote — which also passed, 313-109. All Democrats voted in favor; Republicans voted 81 for and 109 against.

The legislation the measure is attached to is a major bill, the “Fiscal Year 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Legislative Branch, Defense, State, Foreign Operations, and Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act”, H.R. 2740.

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

Six new technologies that can aid wildland firefighters

Hearing about technology wildland fire
Hearing about technology for wildland fire, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee June 5, 2019.

This week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in Washington about new technologies that can aid wildland firefighters. The Committee invited companies to describe new systems that can help firefighters communicate and improve their situational awareness. Legislation signed by the President in March requires the federal land management agencies to adopt within 6 to 24 months systems that can track in real time both the advancing edge of a wildfire and all of the firefighting resources working on the incident. Firefighters have been killed when these important facts about a dangerous fire were not known, due to smoke, darkness, or terrain.

In the video below we see interviews with the representatives of six companies describing their systems that may improve the situational awareness of firefighters.

(The video can also be viewed at YouTube)

Only three of the 20 Senators that are members of the committee attended the hearing, Cory Gardner (CO), Maria Cantwell (WA), and Martin Heinrich (NM). Approximately 20 Senators sent one or more  members of their staff to observe.

In addition to the six companies that appear in the video, other organizations that had exhibits and made presentations in the hearing were the National Weather Service, Rave Mobile Safety, Vulcan Fire, and Simtable.

Senators to followup on bill passed to enhance safety of wildland firefighters

“Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.” Bill Gabbert, 2018.

FRNSW drone
Fire and Rescue New South Wales photo

Next week there will be a fire management technology “Expo” in Washington, D.C. to introduce Senators to emerging technology that can aid wildland firefighters.

Fourteen months after it was first introduced, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act became law after it was included in an omnibus bill, the Natural Resources Management Act. The Senate passed it with a vote of 92 to 8, and the House followed suit, 363 to 62. On March 12, 2019 it was signed by the President.

Now that the legislation has become Public Law 116-9 the federal land management agencies are directed to adopt or build on a number of new technologies that can enhance the safety of firefighters and aid in the suppression of wildfires.

The Expo scheduled for June 5 will give approximately eight to twelve proponents or vendors of new technology time to explain what these new systems can do. Then the Senators and their staffs will be able to individually talk with the representatives and examine the exhibits and displays the companies brought that will be lining the walls of the Senate hearing room.

Several of the technologies expected to be featured are listed below.

Later in June the Committee will convene their annual hearing where representatives of the land management agencies will bring the Senators up to date on their plans for managing wildfires this year. And importantly, the Senators, then fresh from their brief seminar on new technologies, will be able to discuss how the agencies are progressing on implementing the technology directives that they are now required by law to implement, many of which have due dates.

The key points in Public Law 116-9 have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates were established from March 12, 2019 when the legislation was 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. (180 days, due by September 8, 2019)
      • Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 180 days, March 12, 2020)
      • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years, March 12, 2021)  According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell, by the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.

In October, 2013 we first wrote about what we called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety. It is a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters AND the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. Too often firefighters have been surprised, overrun, and sometimes killed by a rapidly spreading wildfire when they did not know where the fire was and/or their supervisors did not know the correct, actual location of the personnel.

Not everyone on a fire would need to monitor the location data all the time, but at least one person should be given the responsibility to be sure that a rapidly spreading wildfire does not overrun the location of firefighting resources. Darkness, smoke, and terrain can obscure the location of the fire from firefighters on the ground.

Two wildfire bills pending in D.C.

A Senator and a Representative in Oregon are pushing two bills that have been introduced in Congress that would affect wildland fire and forest management. One emphasized logging while the other is about mitigating hazardous fuels near communities.

Last week U.S. Rep. Greg Walden introduced the Resilient Federal Forests Act,  which would:

  • Reduce environmental compliance restrictions on projects up to 10,000 acres to treat forest stands affected by insects and disease in order to reduce hazardous fuels and protect watersheds. The limit would expand to 30,000 acres for collaborative projects.
  • Expedite salvage logging after fires.
  • Require replanting 75 percent of burned areas within five years.
  • Increase logging on Oregon and California Railroad lands in Western Oregon.
  • Remove the prohibition on logging trees over 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is working to pass his Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act that stalled in the Senate last year. One of the main provisions is to appropriate $1 billion to the U.S. Forest Service for ramping up projects that would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, including expanding the  U.S. Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. These projects would carry out hazardous fuels reduction activities on Forest Service lands in areas that are near at-risk communities, are high-value watersheds, or have very high wildfire potential. The goal is to create fire-adapted communities, restore and maintain resilient landscapes, and to achieve safe and effective fire response.

In another wildfire related issue, Senator Merkley said thanks to a $7 million appropriation from the federal government the Oregon National Guard trained 230 Guard members in March to fight fires and another 125 will be trained in July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

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

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

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

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

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


(UPDATE February 28, 2019)