Federal wildfire funding has been cut 15% since 2010

Average size wildfires, 1961-2011
Average size of wildfires, 1961-2011. Source: NIFC and Wildfire Today (click to enlarge)

The media frequently reports on wildfire-related events that are exciting, such as big flames, hundreds of burned homes, and thousands of evacuated residents. but an under-reported aspect of wildfire management is the effects of reductions in funding. Every time Congress passes and the President signs a bill that reduces funding for fire suppression, fuel management, and fire prevention, there are proportional effects that ripple throughout the federal land management agencies. It appears that the chickens have come home to roost as we have fewer federal wildland firefighters, fewer staffed engines, and an air tanker fleet that has been reduced from 44 in 2002 to the 9 exclusive use large air tankers that are currently working under contract.

As we lose the ability to aggressively attack new fires with overwhelming force, more fires become mega-expensive conflagrations that cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to attempt to put out. A relatively small upfront expense for ground and air resources arriving within the first 30 minutes can be very cost effective when the fire is put out and everyone one goes back to the fire station to prepare for the next one.

I don’t want to hear any more congressmen complain about the lack of federal resources, or show up in a constituent’s home to listen to them complain about how the federal government fights fire, without them also committing to fixing the funding problem. They control the purse strings.

Wildfire budgets cut by 15% since 2010

A reporter for The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote a very interesting article about the declining firefighting budgets. The Guardian, of course, is a UK-based newspaper. Sometimes we need a fresh perspective of something that has been right in front of us. We mentioned Ms. Goldenberg’s article on June 1, but this under-reported story bears repeating. Here is an excerpt:

A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.

It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Campaigners say that leaves the federal government agencies responsible for preventing and putting out wildfires under-funded – especially given projections suggesting a rise in wildfires over the next 20 years.

They also worry the government agencies responsible for fire protection are putting capital projects on hold – such as updating its fleet of air tankers.

Legislation introduced to double the number of military MAFFS air tankers and restrict the use of foreign air tankers

MAFFS II
MAFFS II unit being transported on a carrier, ready for installation in a C-130J

Proposal to reactivate old MAFFS units

A California congressman has introduced legislation requiring that the eight old, first generation Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS), which can be used as needed in military C-130H aircraft to fight wildfires, be made available to units of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The eight older MAFFS were replaced by nine second generation MAFFS II units within the last four years and the old units can’t be used in the more modern C-130J aircraft. The C-130Hs still in service are being targeted as potential air tankers by Representative Elton Gallegly from California who introduced the bill.

MAFFS air tankers are supposed to be activated only if all of the privately owned air tankers on federal contracts are committed. None of the eight military MAFFS have been used yet this year.

MAFFS C-130  Las Conchas 6-27
MAFFS C-130J makes a drop on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, 6-27-2011. Photo: Jayson Coil

Currently eight of the nine new MAFFS II units are assigned and available to be used in C-130Js at bases in California, Wyoming, Colorado, and North Carolina. Representative Gallegly’s bill, H.R.5965, would require that the one spare MAFFS II and the eight first generation MAFFS that are in storage be made available and ready for activation if needed for wildfire suppression. That would increase the numbers of MAFFS air tankers to 17.

There is at least one obstacle that would have to be overcome in order to implement the Representative’s proposal. The military has indicated that they are not interested in expanding their role in suppressing wildfires. According to the Conference Chairman’s Report from the Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Washington, D.C. in 2011, Lt. Col. Bryan Allen of the Air National Guard said that given the nation’s operational tempo, he would not be comfortable with extending this role for what are essentially warfighting assets. And Clark R. Lystra of the Office of Secretary of Defense reported that an increase in the use of military assets to combat wildland fires had been rejected by the Department.

If you want to know more about the MAFFS II units, we covered the details in an article we wrote in 2009.

Restrict the use of air tankers from a foreign government

The proposed legislation has an additional requirement:

The Chief of the Forest Service may not procure air tankers to fight wildfires from a foreign government unless the Chief of the Forest Service certifies to Congress that MAFFS air tanker support available from units of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve is being fully utilized or is not sufficient to address wildfires on National Forest System land.

On June 6 the U.S. Forest Service announced that that they had arranged to temporarily hire a CV-580 air tanker from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. At that time the  two DC-10 air tankers based in California that carry five times more retardant than the CV-580s were not hired. Then on June 11 the USFS announced that they had activated on a call when needed contract (CWN) one of the two American-based DC-10s and also borrowed three more Canadian CV-580s. The USFS currently does not have a contract with Evergreen’s American-based 747 air tanker that carries 10 times more retardant than a CV-580.

A Canadian-owned, UK-built air tanker is being used today on fires in the United States. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation is leasing a BAe-146 from Tronos, the Canadian company that converted the airliner into an air tanker. Neptune has been awarded a contract for two more BAe-146s and expects to bring them on later this year. Aero Flite of Kingman, Arizona was also awarded a contract recently, for one air tanker, and is partnering with Conair of Abbotsford, British Columbia to convert an RJ85, which is similar to a BAe-146.

Status of the proposed legislation

The bill has only been introduced and has seen no action other than being referred to the House Committee on Agriculture.

Senator introduces bill to speed air tanker contracting

UPDATE at 9:57 a.m. MT, June 8, 2012: When we wrote this article yesterday the text of the bill was not available. Now it is and we included it below (We added the link to the solicitation):

Notwithstanding the last sentence of section 3903(d) of title 41, United States Code, the Chief of the Forest Service may award contracts pursuant to Solicitation Number AG-024B-S-11-9009 for large air tankers earlier than the end of the 30-day period beginning on the date of the notification required under the first sentence of section 3903(d) of that title.

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UPDATE at 7:46 p.m. MT, June 7, 2012: the Associated Press is reporting that the Senate passed the bill today. The U.S. Forest Service told Congress that they have made a decision about new air tanker contracts but have to wait until late June to award them. It is very surprising a body of Congress can pass this bill three days after it was introduced. The bill now goes over to the House of Representatives.

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Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico introduced a bill on June 4 that would speed the contracting of air tankers. Currently there is a requirement that Congress be notified 30 days before certain contracts are awarded. This bill, S. 3261, would partially waive that requirement, making it possible for the U.S. Forest Service to issue federal contracts for at least seven large air tankers before the end of that 30-day period.

Below is video of Senator Wyden speaking on the Senate floor on June 5, in which he addresses the Tanker 11 fatalities, the crash of Tanker 55, the shortage of air tankers, and the bill he just introduced. The text of his remarks as prepared can be found HERE.

If Senator Wyden’s legislative record during this term in the Senate is any indication, it is unlikely the bill will be passed. He has sponsored 73 bills, none of which were made into law. Of the 209 bills he co-sponsored, one became law.

Some would say the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management staff, instead of looking for ways to speed up the air tanker contracting process, is instead, searching desperately for ways to slow the process to a crawl, so they don’t have to actually make a decision.

Colorado Senator Mark Udall has been vocal on the issues of bark beetles and air tankers, and on April 12 wrote a letter to Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell expressing his concerns about the state of the aging fleet of air tankers. In the letter he said:

Though air tankers are only one part of the wildfire-response effort, they play a critical role in the initial attack. With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 air tankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFS’s current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season…

Talk is cheap. Introducing a bill, asking questions, or writing a letter, is easy, but turning it into action is another story. Several Senators talk tough in hearings about the air tanker fiasco, but they don’t pass bills funding any changes that would benefit the program. Other Senators that have questioned the U.S. Forest Service’s management of the air tanker program include Jon Kyl, AZ; Lisa Murkowski, AK; Jeff Bingaman, NM; Ron Wyden, OR; Mark Udall, CO; Jon Tester, MT; and Dianne Feinstein, CA.

The only way the air tanker program will see any long term meaningful changes will be if Congress forces it upon the U.S. Forest Service. These Senators should know that talking tough, issuing press releases, and writing letters to Tom Tidwell is not adequate. A successful strategy in wars and for initial attack on wildfires is overwhelming force. That is what it will take in this case.

The Guardian writes about budget cuts and the Whitewater-Baldy fire

Whitewater-Baldy fire, May 28, 2012
Mt. Taylor Hot Shots burning out on the Whitewater-Baldy fire along Forest Road 141, May 28, 2012. USFS photo by Steven Meister, Mt. Taylor Hot Shots.

The Guardian is a newspaper based in the United Kingdom, but they also have a substantial presence in the United States. One of their Washington D.C. based reporters, Suzanne Goldenberg, published two articles today about wildfires in the U.S., and specifically the Whitewater-Baldy fire, which at over 216,000 acres has blasted through the record set last year by the Las Conchas fire for the largest in the recorded history of New Mexico. Ms. Goldenberg’s articles are well-researched and written, and are worth reading, in spite of one particular quote. She obviously talked with actual firefighters on the ground, as well as some folks that you will recognize that are sitting comfortably hundreds of miles away from the fire.

The first article concentrates on the declining budgets of the land management agencies that are involved with fire management. The second covers the Whitewater-Baldy fire, mega-fires, and stories from locals and firefighters, including the first firefighters to rappel into the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the first article:

Fire experts are warning that $512m in congressional budget cuts could leave communities dangerously exposed in an early and active fire season.

Such warnings have sharpened with the early onset of this year’s fire season, and the record-setting outbreak in New Mexico.

Experts fear the shortfall will leave fire crews scrambling for resources, and force government agencies to dip into other non-fire budgets to cover the gap.

“A person has to wonder. Is this going to be the new norm – frequent record-setting fires, while the number of federal firefighters and air tankers continue to shrink?” wrote Bill Gabbert, a former fire management officer in the Black Hills of South Dakota who now runs the blog wildfiretoday.com.

A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.

It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Join Ms. Goldenberg from the Guardian and myself on June 4 when we co-host a live web chat about wildfires. More information can be found HERE.

Proposed federal wildfire budget contains mostly cuts, with some increases

President Obama has released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. At this point it is merely a suggestion until Congress passes appropriation or spending cap bills.

The budget fully funds the 10-year average cost of wildland fire suppression operations, but there is a reduction in the funding of the treatment of hazardous fuels — by 24% in the Department of Agriculture and by 21% in the Department of Interior.

The numbers in the table below are in millions, and represent the proposed wildfire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies within the Department of Interior.

20122013Change
USFS Preparedness1,0041,001-3
USFS Suppression853931+78
USFS Hazardous Fuels317242-75
USDA State & Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants9984-15
DOI Preparedness277280+3
DOI Suppression81277+196
DOI Hazardous Fuels183145-38
DOI Rural Fire Assistance (was $7 million in 2011)000

In the Department of Interior’s justification for the 21% reduction in the hazardous fuels budget, they invoked the name of a U.S. Forest Service researcher, Jack Coehn, who has studied the wildland urban interface:

The Wildland Fire Management account in DOI supports wildland fire preparedness, suppression, rehabilitation, and hazardous fuels reduction activities.  When targeted properly, hazardous fuels reduction activities (e.g., removing brush and small trees in strategic locations) can reduce impacts from wildfires, including threats to public safety, suppression costs, and damage to natural and cultural resources.
DOI and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have agreed on several actions to reduce impacts from wildfires, such as:  1) prioritizing fuels treatments that have been identified as key components of Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are cost effective; and 2) expanding wildland fire use as a means of treating fuels.
Although funding for hazardous fuels treatments has quadrupled since 2000, the previous policy of treatingthe greatest number of acres possible has led to a patchwork of hazardous fuels treatment that has not been as focused as it could have been on reducing risks in the WUI.  As suggested by Forest Service scientists, extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change whether or not homes in the WUI catch on fire.  However, when there is a clear priority of treating acres within the WUI, hazardous fuels treatments can be more effective in reducing risk.
1,2 In 2013, the Forest Service and DOI will target fuels management activities to mitigate hazards and enhance the ability to control fires in WUI.  The agencies will focus funding for hazardous fuels treatments in communities that are on track to meet Firewise standards and have identified acres to be treated in Community Wildfire Protection Plans (or the equivalent) and have made an investment in implementing local solutions to protect against wildland fire.
Citations
1  Cohen, Jack D.,  Wildland-Urban Fire  – A different approach, USDA Forest Service, unpublished research synthesis, Rocky Mountain Research Station, http://www.firewise.org/resources/files/WUI_HIR/Wildlandurbanfire-approach.pdf.
2  Cohen, Jack D.,  Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes:  Where and How Much?, USDA Forest Service Gen.Tech.Rep. PSW-GTR-173 (1999), http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_1999_cohen_j001.pdf.

The Department of Agriculture explained their reduction in the U.S. Forest Service’s hazardous fuels budget, saying that “though the majority of the inexpensive locations have now been treated to reduce hazardous fuels,  FS is also furthering its efforts to focus its hazardous fuels treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface in areas that are identified in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are highest priority.”

What is behind the “Cohesive Strategy”?

The announcement last week that the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC), at their March 16-17 meeting agreed to establish a blueprint for a “Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy” made us curious for more details. The announcement was rather vague, provided little real information about the initiative, and was easily confused with the “10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan” developed in 2002.

It turns out that the federal land management agencies were required to develop the Cohesive Strategy by the 2009 FLAME Act, with a deadline of October 30, 2010. The FLAME Act was primarily known for setting up a procedure for funding the costs of large catastrophic-type fires while also serving as a reserve when funds available in the regular suppression account are exhausted.

HSToday has more information:

The Flame Act of 2009 requires the Forest Service and Department of Interior to submit to Congress a report that contains a cohesive wildfire management strategy consistent with recommendations in recent General Accountability Office (GAO) reports regarding management strategies. Following its formal approval by the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Interior by October 2010, the Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy is to be revised at least once during each five year period to address any changes with respect to landscape, vegetation, climate, and weather conditions.

According to the legislation the Cohesive Strategy is required to provide for the identification of the most cost effective means for allocating fire management budget resources. This includes the reinvestment in non-fire programs by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, employing the appropriate management response to wildfire, assessing the level of risk to communities, allocation of hazardous fuels reduction funds based on the priority of hazardous fuels reduction projects, and assessing the impacts of climate change on the frequency and impact of wildfire.

In addition, the Congressional requirements hold that the strategy meet GAO standards for addressing cost effectiveness of suppression and mitigation, the efficiency of treatments for fuels and Fire Adapted Communities and establishment of meaningful performance measures.