Legislation update: bills introduced to retain Giant Sequoias and wildland firefighters

burned Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP, November, 2021. NPS photo by Daniel Jeffcoach.

At Wildfire Today we don’t get too excited about proposed legislation because most of it is introduced, sent to a committee, and is never seen again. But pending, there are two that will interest land managers and wildland firefighters and may have a better than 50/50 chance of passing.

Save Our Sequoias

Today House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield-23) and co-author House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced the Save Our Sequoias (SOS) act.

These trees that can live for up to 3,000 years need protection. This should include actively managing and reducing the surrounding hazardous fuels. In addition, when firefighting resources are scarce, which seems to be the new normal, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups need to consider the irreplaceable value of these iconic groves when allocating personnel and equipment for going fires. Some may say these behemoths are at least, if not more, valuable than man-made structures that also may need protection from nearby fires.

Do we need a new paradigm for protecting iconic groves of remaining giant sequoias?

Preliminary surveys found that in a two year period, 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle FireEarly estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years.

At this rate, with this climate, we could lose the rest of these massive trees in just a few years.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The darker green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

Please watch this video to see how urgent the issue is.

The film was produced by Kyle Dickman and the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District thanks to a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board’s Forest conservation Program.

Despite the looming threat to the remaining Giant Sequoias, federal land managers have not been able to increase the pace and scale of treatments necessary to restore Giant Sequoia resiliency to wildfires, insects, and drought. At its current pace, it would take the U.S. Forest Service approximately 52 years to treat just their 19 highest priority Giant Sequoia groves at high-risk of experiencing devastating wildfires. Without urgent action, we are at risk of losing our iconic trees in the next several years. Accelerating scientific forest management practices will not only improve the health and resiliency of these thousand-year-old trees but also enhance air and water quality and protect critical habitat for important species like the Pacific Fisher.

The SOS Act will provide land managers with the emergency tools and resources needed to save these remaining ancient wonders from the unprecedented peril threatening their long-term survival. The bill would:

  • Enhance coordination between federal, state, tribal and local land managers through shared stewardship agreements and the codification of the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, a partnership between the current Giant Sequoia managers.
  • Create a Giant Sequoia Health and Resiliency Assessment to prioritize wildfire risk reduction treatments in the highest-risk groves and track the progress of scientific forest management activities.
  • Declare an emergency to streamline and expedite environmental reviews and consultations while maintaining robust scientific analysis.
  • Provide new authority to the National Park Foundation and National Forest Foundation to accept private donations to facilitate Giant Sequoia restoration and resiliency.
  • Establish a comprehensive reforestation strategy to regenerate Giant Sequoias in areas destroyed by recent catastrophic wildfires.

Neither the text or a summary of the bill, H.R.8168, is available, but on the day it was introduced Congress.gov listed 26 cosponsors — 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

$1,000 Recruitment or Retention bonus for wildland firefighters

An amendment has been added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2023, H.R.7900, which would pay a recruitment or retention bonus of not less than $1,000 to Federal wildland firefighters. The minimum amount would be increased each year according to the Consumer Price Index. It would be available once a year to any primary or secondary firefighter after successfully completing the Work Capacity Test.

‘‘Federal wildland firefighter’’ is defined as “any temporary, seasonal, or permanent position at the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior that maintains group, emergency incident management, or fire qualifications, as established annually by the Standards for Wildland Fire Position Qualifications published by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and primarily engages in or supports wildland fire management activities, including forestry and rangeland technicians and positions concerning aviation, engineering heavy equipment operations, or fire and fuels management.”

It does not appropriate any additional funding to pay the bonuses, but the dollars could most likely come from the salaries from unfilled positions.

The NDAA is far from being passed, but this is a high priority piece of legislation which is sometimes used as a vehicle for slipping in unrelated bills. The 2014 NDAA, for example, included authorization and $130 million to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft from the Coast Guard to the US Forest Service to be used as air tankers. But that’s a long, sad, story with a couple of unexpected twists. (Unless there are still more delays, one or more may be actually flying over fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, not the Forest Service, in 2023.)

A correction was made to the dates in which nearly 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years.

Federal wildland firefighters to receive pay increase July 3, 2022

It will be temporary, until appropriated funds run out. New Wildland Firefighter job series created.

10 a.m. MDT June 21, 2022

Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021
Firefighter on the Dixie Fire at Greenville, CA, 2021. Photo by Jay Walter.

A statement issued by the White House today addressed changes in federal wildland firefighter pay that were required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) passed by Congress last year. A temporary pay increase of $20,000 a year, or 50 percent of their base salary, whichever is less, was supposed to be implemented on October 1, 2021.

Firefighters will begin receiving the additional salaries July 3, 2022, with the retroactive pay due since October 1, 2021 to follow.

An unfortunately-worded section of the legislation said the temporary pay increase would only apply in locations where it is difficult to recruit or retain fire personnel. A Frequently Asked Questions document released today by the USDA, DOI, and OPM said it has been determined that it is difficult to recruit or retain wildland firefighters in every geographic area.

The FAQ document says Forest Service employees will begin receiving a series of three retroactive payments (due since October 1) within the next three pay periods. The supplemental salary increase ($20,000 a year, or 50 percent of their base salary) will begin July 3 (pay period 14).

Department of the Interior firefighters will receive the retroactive payments in the July 12 paycheck, with the supplemental salary increase beginning July 3 (pay period 15).

The hourly supplement will be used when computing overtime pay rates but will not count toward the high-3 average salary used to compute lifetime retirement annuities.

More details about the payments are in the FAQ document.

The Administration says they are “committed to finding a long-term solution to develop the more permanent, well-supported firefighting workforce needed to address the growing wildfire threat before the temporary salary supplements provided by BIL are exhausted.”

“New” job series

The legislation also required that a new job series be created for wildland firefighters, to replace the Forestry Technician or Range Technician series currently used. The statement says OPM released on June 21, 2022 the “new GS-0456, Wildland Firefighter series”. This series number previously existed 50 years ago, titled Fire Control Aids. Agencies will implement the series “in the coming months”. Modifications were made to the old series to reflect the changing nature of the fire season and the work. Changes included series definition, titling, knowledge required to perform wildland firefighting work, occupational information, and illustrations of work performed by wildland firefighters.

Current Federal firefighters will be able to choose whether to opt-in to the series or stay in their current occupations. The Administration said, “Creation of the new series will provide a clear career path for wildland firefighters with defined requirements for advancement. This will also facilitate mobility between wildland firefighter jobs… The new series does not make any changes to retirement.”

Other than “finding a long-term solution” there was no specific mention in the documents of a new permanent pay scale for firefighters in light of the new job series. But it is possible to modify grades within the series.

“Grades will change specifically as a result of the new position classification standard,” the FAQ document states. “The overall grading structure for the position classification standard includes grades 2 through 15. OPM, Interior, and Agriculture verified through the classification process that this grading structure is adequate. Agencies have the delegated authority to determine the work and grades supportable for their positions. Accordingly, the Departments will now apply the standard to evaluate specific positions within the occupational series.”

The Wildland Fire Management Series is aligned with OPM’s recently issued skills-based hiring guidance.

“While education institutions may offer associated college level degrees for this work,” according to the FAQ document, “the existence of degree availability and course content is not required for the performance of the work in the 0456 Wildland Fire Management series. In accordance with 5 U.S.C. 3308, OPM and Federal agencies are prohibited from prescribing education when the work can be performed without it. While training for this occupation is needed, the best training is on-the-job training. This correlates to qualification requirements and degree availability for the 0081, Firefighting occupation.”

Physical and mental health

Still another requirement in the legislation required the five agencies that employ wildland firefighters to increase their focus on wildland firefighters’ physical and mental wellbeing.

From today’s White House announcement:

The newly established joint DOI- U.S. Forest Service program will address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care for permanent, temporary, seasonal and year-round wildland firefighters at both agencies, along with addressing environmental hazards to minimize on-the-job exposure for wildland firefighters. The joint program will also connect existing efforts and establish year-round prevention and mental health training for wildland firefighters and create critical incident stress management staffing response.  The Forest Service along with each of DOI’s wildland fire management bureaus — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service — will also add staffing capacity specifically to focus on mental health and employee support efforts for firefighters.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

Bill passes in House to establish list of presumptive illnesses for federal firefighters

Creates the presumption that federal firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases contracted them on the job

Firefighter Cerro Pelado Fire in Arizona
Firefighter on the Cerro Pelado Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022. IMT photo.

Today the House of Representatives voted 288-131 to approve and advance the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499, a bipartisan measure authored by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA) that ensures federal firefighters receive the same access to job-related disability and retirement benefits as state, county, and municipal firefighters.

The legislation would create the presumption that firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases contracted them on the job, including heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers, and other infectious diseases.

Federal firefighters do not have signed legislation establishing the presumption that local firefighters have in 49 out of 50 U.S. states– and are forced to identify specific exposures that may have caused their illness. This burden of proof makes it extraordinarily difficult for federal firefighters to qualify for workers comp and disability benefits related to their work.

The measure would improve benefits for more than 20,000 federal firefighters across the U.S., with about 16,000 of them being wildland firefighters. It would apply to “personnel who have been employed for a minimum of 5 years in aggregate as an employee in fire protection activities.”

The diseases covered under the legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, are:

  • Bladder cancer, brain cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemias, lung cancer, mesothelioma, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, skin cancer (melanoma), testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, and a sudden cardiac event or stroke while, or not later than 24 hours after engaging in certain fire-related activities described in the bill.

It was just three weeks ago, on April 19, when the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), in FECA Bulletin No. 22-07, established a list of cancers and medical conditions for which the firefighter does not have to submit proof that their disease was caused by an on the job injury.

The medical conditions covered under the OWCP bulletin as of last month are:

  • Cancers: esophageal, colorectal, prostate, testicular, kidney, bladder, brain, lung, buccal cavity/pharynx, larynx, thyroid, multiple myeloma, nonHodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, mesothelioma, or melanoma; or
  • Hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, or a sudden cardiac event or stroke.

The OWCP list includes six conditions that are not in H.R. 2499: buccal cavity/pharynx cancer, larynx cancer, hypertension, coronary artery disease, pulmonary fibrosis, and asthma.

H.R. 2499 covers one disease not in the OWCP list, skin cancer, an important addition, especially for wildland firefighters whose work requires being outside most of the time. The bill includes a method for adding other diseases within a three-year period, including breast cancer, if supported by scientific evidence.

The pending legislation had 203 co-sponsors in the House, an extraordinarily large number of representatives who stated early-on that they were in favor of the bill and wanted to help get it passed.

The next step is the Senate, a place where many bills go to die. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan companion bill there. It has 12 co-sponsors, only two of which are Republicans. With a 50-50 Dem/Rep balance and a requirement for 60 of the 100 Senators to vote yes, the passage is not a foregone conclusion, in spite of overwhelming approval in the House.

“We know fire fighters are routinely exposed to carcinogens on fire scenes. Sadly, our brothers and sisters in federal service are too often denied the benefits they deserve when needed the most,” said International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Edward Kelly. “The Federal Firefighter Fairness Act brings the federal government in line with the 49 states that recognize the deadly link between firefighting and cancer.”

Bill introduced to require suppression of all US Forest Service fires

Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy 395
Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy. 395 July 22, 2021. IMT photo.

Yesterday two US Congressmen, Tom McClintock (CA-04) and Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), introduced legislation directing the U.S. Forest Service to immediately suppress wildfires on National Forest System.

H.R. 6903 requires that “to the extent practicable, use all available resources to carry out wildfire suppression with the purpose of extinguishing wildfires detected on National Forest System lands not later than 24 hours after such a wildfire is detected.”

It further states, the Forest Service “may only use fire as a resource management tool if the fire is a prescribed fire that complies with applicable law and regulations; and may only initiate a backfire or burnout during a wildfire by order of the responsible incident commander.”

It does not stop there. If a wildfire is used as a resource management tool or if a backfire or burnout was not authorized by the incident commander, the bill stipulates that “any person aggrieved by a violation [of those two requirements] may bring a civil action against the United States…”

There have been a number of fires in the last couple of years that received a lot of criticism for a lack of suppressing them or for adopting a strategy of back off and burn out thousands of acres rather than construct direct fire line.

The most notorious initially unattacked fire recently was the Tamarack Fire near Markleeville, CA. It started as a single tree on July 4, 2021 and was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small until it suddenly grew very large. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.

In a Congressional committee hearing September 29, 2021 Randy Moore the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service was asked several questions by Rep. LaMalfa, including about the Tamarack Fire. The Chief said that after the fire started the Forest Service “spiked out a small crew to monitor” the fire. If that was the case, they apparently took no action, because the USFS reported on July 10 that it was 0.25 acre, they were not going to insert crews due to safety concerns, and it “posed no threat to the public, infrastructure, or resource values.” The Chief gave grossly incorrect information about the number of fire personnel that were assigned to fires at that time and the number of large uncontained fires, in both cases inflating the numbers by factors of three or four. That appeared to be justification for not attacking the fire — a shortage of firefighters. However, a quarter-acre fire would only need a handful of personnel for a day or two. On July 23 the incident reported that 1,353 personnel were assigned.

Rep. LaMalfa tried to get the Chief to say the Forest Service is committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, but he preferred to use the term “aggressive forest management.” (He later said that they already do aggressive initial attack.)

If the name Tom McClintock sounds familiar, he was the Representative who when asked about the difficulties in recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters last July, said,”Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labor.”

Our take

“Fire science is not rocket science—it’s way more complicated.”
Robert Essenhigh, Professor Emeritus, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Ohio State University.

It is possible to manage a fire while not suppressing it, but is extremely difficult to do successfully. It takes smart, very experienced firefighters who are able to play the “what if” game, as firefighting legend Rick Gale used to say. You have to anticipate what COULD happen, and have a plan in your pocket for how to mitigate it before or after it happens, without significant unpleasant repercussions. I never heard him use the term, but in other words, consider the second and third order effects.

I have heard people say that we have too much fuel because fires have been suppressed, so this means we should greatly ramp up the use of less than full suppression fires. Many of those folks do not have a complete understanding of the full complexities.

As a member of an interagency incident management team whose sole duty was to manage less than full suppression wildfires, I learned that it is extremely difficult to allow a wildfire to successfully burn for weeks or months with little or no suppression. It requires highly skilled and long-experienced firefighters in key positions to make it work. Another ingredient that is necessary, which can’t be entered on a Resource Request, is luck. All it takes is one or two days of very strong winds and you can find yourself in a nightmare scenario. A less than full suppression fire which goes on for months will probably encounter at least one wind event. After the fire quadruples in size, changing the strategy to suppression is not a situation an Agency Administrator wants to find themselves in.

Selecting this strategy at the beginning or even the middle of the fire season is, to put it bluntly in clear text, stupid. Especially when the fuels are extremely dry. It would make more sense four to six weeks before the average date of a Season Ending Event brought on by heavy rain or snow. However as we have seen in recent years, “average” conditions are not a sure thing.

Prescribed fire — Yes

While encouraging widespread use of less than full suppression fires is not the the best solution, we can and should, greatly increase the use of prescribed fire. To pick a number out of the air, escalate it by a factor of 10. And, let’s be careful about igniting large expanses of grass or prairie just to hit a number where you can burn for $5 an acre. Make it meaningful, where it is needed.

Department of Interior releases spending plan for Infrastructure funds

DOI Infrastructure spending 2022-2026
Department of the Interior’s outline for spending funds appropriated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for wildland fire, fiscal years 2022 through 2026.

The Department of the Interior (DOI), as required by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden on November 15, 2021, has released an outline for spending the $1.5 billion that the legislation appropriated to be used by the Department for wildland fire. Four agencies within the DOI have significant wildland fire responsibilities: Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and bureau of Indian Affairs.

In January the US Forest Service announced how it will spend the $2.42 billion the agency will receive, and also here in February.

Before the bill was passed, we compiled a summary of the legislation’s provisions that relate to wildland fire.

Below are excerpts from a 13-page DOI document that explains how the new funds will be used.

…The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides a total of nearly $1.5 billion to DOI for the Wildland Fire Management (WFM) programs and activities shown in the table below. Specifically, Division J appropriates $1,458,000,000. This funding is provided as emergency appropriations and is available for obligation until expended. Division J further specifies in which fiscal year (FY) amounts become available for obligation from FY 2022-FY 2026, as reflected in the table [above]. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service received complementary appropriations for wildland fire management, and the two agencies are collaborating on and coordinating implementation of the BIL.

Preparedness – Workforce Reform: The BIL provides $120.0 million over five years to increase the compensation of Federal wildland firefighters, convert more firefighters to permanent, year-round employment, and support the health and safety of firefighters. The law directs DOI and USDA Forest Service to increase compensation for firefighters in some geographic areas and to work with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish a wildland firefighter occupational series. Further, DOI and USDA Forest Service are required to establish mitigation strategies for line-of-duty environmental hazards and firefighters’ mental health.

Other Preparedness: The law provides another $125.0 million over five years for other activities that will increase America’s preparedness to respond to wildland fire. They include support for workshops and training for firefighters, equipment, satellite detection and reporting, and wildfire detection and monitoring, and a pilot program to support Tribal Nations and local governments in wildfire response.

Fuels Management: The law provides $878.0 million over five years to plan and implement fuels management. This work will protect vulnerable communities from wildfire while preparing our natural landscapes for a changing climate. The law’s funding is intended to support mechanical thinning; prescribed fire; employing contractors, young adults, veterans, and Tribal Nations’ youth; and other fuels management.

Burned Area Rehabilitation: The law provides $325.0 million over five years to complete post-fire restoration activities. These actions help mitigate the damaging effects of wildfires and set landscapes on a path towards natural recovery and climate resilience.

Joint Fire Science Program: The law provides $10.0 million to DOI over five years to study and research wildland fire through the Joint Fire Science Program, which DOI and USDA jointly administer. The program will use the funding to conduct research on climate change interactions, smoke management concerns, impacts on diverse populations, and management actions that will make ecosystems more wildfire and drought resistant.

Funding for the Office of the Inspector General and Administration: The BIL requires that 0.5 percent of the appropriations be transferred to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and provides that DOI may use up to 3.0 percent of the appropriations for “salaries, expenses, and administration.” These amounts are reflected in the table on page 3.

Timeline for Implementation – FY 2022 and Later Years

The law establishes several deadlines that will serve as milestones for implementation, including the following:

  • Beginning October 1, 2021 (no deadline for completion set in the law): DOI and USDA Forest Service will:
    • Seek to convert not fewer than 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighting positions to permanent year-round positions that are full-time and reduce hazardous fuels on Federal land not fewer than 800 hours per year (each position); and
    • Increase the salary of wildland firefighters by an amount equal to the lesser of $20,000 or 50 percent of base salary if the DOI and USDA Secretaries and the OPM Director determine that a position is in a geographic area where it is difficult to recruit or retain Federal wildland firefighters.
  • Mid-December 2021: DOI, USDA, and DHS (through the FEMA Administrator) jointly established a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to (1) study and make recommendations on preventing, mitigating, suppressing, and managing wildland fires, and (2) rehabilitate land devastated by wildfires. The Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the FEMA Administrator serve as co-chairs, and other Commission members will be appointed. The Commission will issue a report within one year of the first Commission meeting.
  • March 14, 2022 (120 days post-enactment): DOI and USDA Forest Service will establish a five-year monitoring, maintenance, and treatment plan.
  • May 13, 2022 (180 days post-enactment): DOI and USDA Forest Service will develop a distinct wildland firefighter job series, in coordination with OPM.
  • Annually December 31, 2022-2026: DOI and USDA Forest Service will submit a report to Congress on the number of acres of land on which projects carried out using the BIL’s treatment funds improved the Fire Regime Condition Class of the land.
  • October 1, 2022: DOI and USDA Forest Service will develop and adhere to recommendations for mitigation strategies for wildland firefighters to minimize exposure to line-of-duty environmental hazards; and to recognize and address mental health needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder care.
  • September 30, 2027: By no later than this date, DOI and USDA will conduct restoration treatments and improve the Fire Regime Condition Class of 10,000,000 acres of Federal or Tribal lands identified as having a very high wildfire risk potential and that are located in the wildland-urban interface or a public drinking water source area.

Workforce and Compensation

  • Workforce Reform: The BIL provides DOI a total of $120.0 million over five years for firefighters’ compensation, position conversions, and health and safety. DOI will work with USDA Forest Service on strategies to increase firefighters’ compensation; convert hundreds more firefighters to full-year, permanent positions; and address firefighters’ mental health needs.
  • Workforce Assessment: Human capital is the most important investment for effective wildland fire management. Prior to enactment of the BIL, DOI decided to undertake an assessment of the wildland fire management workforce. This assessment will be valuable in implementing the BIL. DOI’s Federal Consulting Group, which is assisting the WFM program, has contracted for a Wildland Fire Workforce Assessment that will serve as baseline information about wildland fire personnel, including geographic location, pay and compensation, diversity, classification, and other factors to inform the determination of sustainable and effective workforce capacity needs. The assessment will be delivered to DOI by May 31, 2022.
  • Coordinated, Interagency Workforce Working Groups: To lead toward the establishment of a wildland firefighter series (deadline 180 days: May 13, 2022), DOI is participating in interagency working groups with OPM and USDA Forest Service to review the current classification series of wildland fire personnel. In addition to position classification and job series, these groups are also evaluating pay, compensation, and other benefits.
  • Compensation Increases for 2022: On June 30, 2021, the President announced compensation increases and retention incentives for the lowest-paid wildland firefighters. These increases were implemented over the summer for a six-month period covering through December 31, 2021. For 2022, DOI and USDA Forest Service issued guidance that no firefighter should be hired at a salary of less than $15 per hour. (Subsequently, OPM issued guidance that applies to positions governmentwide.) DOI and USDA Forest Service are coordinating with OPM on an analysis to propose a special rate request for firefighters.
  • Pre-Planning Fire Response Workshops and Training: DOI and USDA Forest Service, in coordination with stakeholders, will hold workshops and training for staff, non-Federal firefighters, and Tribal fire crews to effectively respond to wildfires and assist in increasing the pace and scale of vegetation treatments. The plan is for USDA Forest Service to lead on pre-planning fire response workshops that develop potential operational delineations and select potential control locations, and for DOI to lead on wildland firefighter training.

Continue reading “Department of Interior releases spending plan for Infrastructure funds”

Numerous wildfire-related bills have been introduced in Congress

Summaries of 14 still pending

Tamarack Fire, July, 2021
Tamarack Fire, July, 2021 by Christine Tsuchida

It seems like in the last year there has been more wildfire-related legislation introduced in Congress than in previous years. It’s hard to say why, but it could be related to a growing number of megafires, more communities destroyed, and increased activism in the wildland firefighter community.

Of course simply introducing legislation accomplishes nothing if it does not become law, except perhaps providing a talking point for the politician’s next reelection campaign. A cynic might suggest that some bills are introduced and press releases issued by members of Congress with no hope or expectation that they will pass. But it is difficult to tell which are real and which are vaporware.

With that in the back of our minds, here is a partial list of 15 bills and the dates they were introduced which have not passed in this 117th United States Congress (2021-2022). Only a few have made it to the committee hearing stage, and none have progressed beyond that.

H.R. 5631Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. October 19, 2021. (Rep. Joe Neguse). This bill has numerous provisions, including raising firefighter pay, creating a wildland firefighter job series, providing health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, housing stipends, and other items. (More details are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)

H.R.5010FIRE Act. August 13, 2021. (Rep. Mike Garcia) This bill directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in collaboration with the U.S. weather industry and and academic partners, to establish a program within NOAA to improve wildfire forecasting and detection.

H.R.2585FIRE Act of 2021. April 1,5 2021 (Rep. Dusty Johnson) Timber salvage sales. No later than 60 days after a wildfire is contained on such lands (1) the Forest Service, to the maximum extent practicable, shall complete a survey of the lands that were impacted by such wildfire; and (2) the Department of Agriculture (USDA) shall convert the timber sales applicable to such lands that were impacted by such wildfire to salvage sales. The bill designates a categorical exclusion for forest management activities where the primary purpose of the activity is for roadside salvage activities that allow for the removal of hazard trees that are within 200 feet of a roadway center line. Activities carried out pursuant to this bill shall be subject to judicial review in the same manner as authorized hazardous fuels reduction projects. A court may not order a preliminary injunction enjoining the USDA from proceeding with timber sales authorized under this bill.

S.3092FIRE Act. October 27, 2021. (Sen. Alex Padilla) The bill would, according to Senator Padilla, update the Stafford Act that governs FEMA—which was written when the agency primarily focused on hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods—to improve FEMA’s response to wildfires, including by accounting for “melted infrastructure” and burned trees as well as allowing FEMA to pre-deploy assets during times of highest wildfire risk and red flag warnings. The bill would also ensure cultural competency for FEMA’s counseling and case management services, help to ensure relocation assistance is accessible to public infrastructure in fire prone areas, prioritize survivors’ housing needs after disasters, ensure equity of assistance for tribal communities and tribal governments, and examine ways to speed up the federal assistance process and improve the availability of fire insurance. More info.

S.1734National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021. May 20, 2021. (Sen. Ron Wyden). The bill would appropriate $300 million each to the Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Agriculture (DOA) to increase the pace and scale of controlled burns on state, county, and federally managed lands. It sets an annual target of at least one million acres treated with prescribed fire by federal agencies, but not to exceed 20 million. It requires the two departments to hire additional employees. Overtime payments for prescribed fire could be paid out of wildfire suppression accounts. More info.

S.138Wildland Firefighter Pay Act. January 28, 2021. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein.) It would raise the maximum limit on overtime pay for federal firefighters. The current limit affects higher level employees at the GS-12 and above level, and some GS-11s depending on if they are exempt from the provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under the existing provisions if they work hundreds of hours of overtime they may reach the cap after which they earn no more money. In some cases later in the fire season employees who spent a lot of time fighting fires have been told they earned too much and were forced to pay some of it back. More info.

S.1116Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2021. April 14, 2021 (Sen. Thomas Carper.) Establishes for federal workers certain medical conditions as presumptive illnesses. Specifically, the bill provides that (1) heart disease, lung disease, and specified cancers of federal employees employed in fire protection activities for at least 5 years are presumed to be proximately caused by such employment if the employee is diagnosed with the disease within 10 years of employment; and (2) the disability or death of the employee due to such disease is presumed to result from personal injury sustained in the performance of duty. These presumptions also apply to fire protection employees (regardless of the length of employment) who contract any communicable disease at the center of a designated pandemic or any chronic infectious disease that the Department of Labor determines is related to job-related hazards.

H.R.6336Western Wildfire Support Act of 2021. December 20, 2021. (Joe Neguse.) Establishes a program to train and certify citizens who wish to be able to volunteer to assist USDA or Interior during a wildland fire incident, and a program to award grants to eligible states or units of local government to acquire slip-on tank and pump units for a surge capacity of resources for fire suppression. It requires the Joint Fire Science Program to carry out research and development of unmanned aircraft system fire applications.

Total wildfire acres

S.2419Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2021. (Sen. Jeff Merkley.) This bill authorizes the President to declare a smoke emergency and provide emergency assistance to affected communities under specified circumstances. Specifically, the President, upon determining that there is, or anticipating that there will be, a significant decrease in air quality due to wildland fire smoke in one or more states, may declare a smoke emergency. The governor or other agency of a state that is or will be affected may request such a declaration. If the President declares a smoke emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies may provide emergency assistance to states and local communities that are or will be affected by the emergency, including grants, equipment, supplies, and personnel and resources for establishing smoke shelters, air purifiers, and additional air monitoring sites. The Small Business Administration may provide grants to any small business concern that loses a significant amount of revenue due to wildland fire smoke in an area in which the President has declared a smoke emergency.

S.2661Smoke-Ready Communities Act of 2021. August 5, 2021. (Sen. Jeff Merkley) Provides funding for infrastructure upgrades to public buildings to filter out wildfire smoke. It would also assist with local efforts to provide health information about wildfire smoke.

S.2421Smoke Planning and Research Act. July 21, 2021. (Sen. Jeff Merkley.) It would make available each year $80 million to fund research on the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and create a grant program for local community planning relating to wildfire smoke.

H.R.4614Resilient Federal Forests Act. (Rep. Bruce Westerman) Primarily related to the logging industry, it streamlines or avoids compliance with some requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act by establishing numerous categorical exclusions for projects on National Forest System and public lands. It does away with many of the environment regulations a logging company must satisfy before a timber sale takes place.

S.48721st Century Conservation Corps Act. (Sen. Ron Wyden.) The bill would provide funds to support a natural resource management and conservation workforce and bolster wildfire prevention and preparedness. Establishes a $9 billion fund for qualified land and conservation corps to increase job training and hiring specifically for jobs in the woods, helping to restore public lands and provide jobs in a time of need. Provides an additional $3.5 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and $2 billion for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to support science-based projects aimed at improving forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Establishes a $2 billion fund to provide economic relief for outfitters and guides holding U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior special use permits. Provides $2 billion for the National Fire Capacity program, which helps the Forest Service implement FireWise, to prevent, mitigate, and respond to wildfire around homes and businesses on private land. Provides $2 billion for the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to improve resiliency for communities impacted by wildfire. Provides $6 billion for U.S. Forest Service, $6 billion for the National Park Service, and $2 billion for the Bureau of Land Management maintenance accounts to create jobs, reduce the maintenance backlog, and expand access to recreation. More information.

S.2650Wildfire Resilient Communities Act. August 5, 2021. (Sen. Jeff Merkley.)  Sets aside $30 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to boost catastrophic wildfire reduction projects. Provides financial and technical assistance to at-risk communities adjacent to Federal land, including through States, to assist the at-risk communities in planning and preparing for wildfire, including cosponsoring and supporting the expansion of the Firewise USA program, the Ready, Set, Go program, and the Living with Wildfire program.