Secretaries Vilsack and Jewell discuss wildfire preparedness

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack meets USFS firefighters in Boise, May 13. USDA photo.

During a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (just 34 days into her new job) discussed the state of wildfire preparedness.

Secretary Vilsack said there will be 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines this year as a result of the budget cuts required by the sequester process adopted by Congress and signed by the President. Vilsack said the overall reduction is more than seven percent.

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, testified before a congressional committee April 16, saying:

We will have the resources we need.

Several news organizations reported on today’s visit. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote, in part:

In answering a question about whether firefighters would make it a priority to protect watersheds in Utah, [Secretary] Jewell said the cuts also are reducing what the federal land agencies spend on preventing fires and rehabilitating lands after a fire.

“You can’t do as much as that advance work as you would like or the post-fire remediation to maintain the integrity of those ecosystems,” Jewell said.

The Idaho Statesman:

Idaho Republican Jim Risch, who joined the two cabinet secretaries on the tour praised the firefighting agencies for doing as well as they can with less. But Risch, who voted for the cuts, offered little hope the secretaries will be able to avoid the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul tradeoffs they face.

“”We got to accept the fact there is not going to be federal funding like there was before,” Risch said.

But in August, if all of the firefighting resources are already in place and more are needed to meet the threat Risch said he and other western lawmakers will put together a coalition to get the emergency funding that is necessary.

Jewell joined smokejumpers Sunday on a training flight five weeks into her tenure as Interior secretary. She also led the entourage over to the Boise Fire Dispatch outside of NIFC to see how the firefighters from federal, state and local governments work together on the ground.

The press release issued by the DOI and DOA included this passage:

Federal assets include more than 13,000 firefighters, including permanent and seasonal federal employees; more than 1,600 engines; up to 26 multiengine air tankers and two water scooper aircrafts; approximately 27 single engine air tankers; and hundreds of helicopters.

Note the “up to 26 multiengine air tankers”. The reality is, there are eight large air tankers on contract — seven 50+ year-old P2Vs, and one BAe-146. In addition to those, six of the seven “next generation” 3,000+ gallon air tankers that were just notified they would be receiving contracts are months or more away from being certified by the FAA and the Interagency AirTanker Board. Some of them may not be seen dropping on a fire until late this summer or even next year, if they are certified at all. The two scoopers mentioned carry less than 1,500 gallons. In addition, the USFS may again borrow some 2,000-gallon, 50-year old Convair 580s from Canada if they are available and not tied up on fires.


Thanks go out to Kelly

USFS Chief: “We will have the resources we need”

Chief Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell testifies at Committee hearing. Credit Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Testifying Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, assured the Senators that there would be an adequate number of firefighting resources available this year.

In spite of budget reductions that will cut 500 firefighters and up to 75 engines from his agency, Chief Tidwell said:

We will have the resources we need.

He said the Forest Service will rely on call-when-needed contracts for air tankers to fight wildfires, but said when they are activated they will cost “one-and-a-half to two-times” more than exclusive use contracts for air tankers that are on duty six days a week.

According to a March 22 report in the Durango Herald, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a letter written to Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, said contracts will be awarded “soon” for seven next-generation air tankers. Secretary Vilsack was responding to a letter Senator Udall sent to the Secretary in January requesting an update on the modernization of the federal air tanker fleet.

The U.S. Forest Service first issued a solicitation for next-generation air tankers 503 days ago but no contracts have been signed. They were almost awarded last summer but were held up by protests filed by two unsuccessful bidders. The solicitation was reissued in October of 2012 but no results have been announced.

During the second half of the western fire season last year, there were between 9 and 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, down from 44 in 2002. If the USFS awards contracts for 7 next-generation air tankers, adding to the 9 Korean War vintage legacy air tankers, the agency may supplement the total with up to 8 old CV-580 air tankers if they are available from Canada and the state of Alaska. In addition, 8 military C-130s may be accessed if they are available and needed.

President recommends reduced budgets for wildland fire

The President is recommending reduced budgets next fiscal year for the federal land management agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities. In his budget released on Wednesday President Obama desires to slash by 41 percent the funds allocated for the five agencies for reducing hazardous fuels, and the preparedness and suppression budget would be cut by 8 percent. The amount set aside for the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund would remain about the same.

The four Department of Interior Agencies would see a reduction of 512 FTEs (full time equivalent employees) to 3,445, down from 3,957 in FY 2012. Those four agencies are the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Below, we assembled some of the numbers from documents released by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture:

President's proposed FY-2014 budget for wildland fire

It should be noted that the chances of this proposal being enacted exactly as recommended are somewhere between slim and none. Congress has not passed a federal budget in four years, and even if they did get one signed for Fiscal Year 2014 which begins in October, 2013, it would no doubt be different from what the President desires, after it makes its way through the dysfunctional House and Senate chambers.

On March 23 the Senate passed another version of a budget for Fiscal Year 2014.

Here are a couple of excerpts from information supplied by the two Departments about the President’s proposed budget. First, Interior, about Hazardous Fuels:
Continue reading “President recommends reduced budgets for wildland fire”

Impacts of budget reductions on fire program of USFWS

USFWSThe impacts of the sequestration budget reductions on the wildland fire program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be just another in a series of past and future hits affecting the agency. In the last few days their Washington office has been distributing more details to the field about what to expect. We obtained the information below from someone who is not authorized to speak for the agency, therefore we are not able to disclose the person’s name.

  • The FWS fire program was told to assume their budget will be 5.1% less than the initial draft allocations due to sequestration, but that could change.
  • Fire employees may be assigned to other accounts to make up for shortfalls in fire budgets in order to avoid furloughs.
  • At least some FWS Regions should be able to absorb a 5.1% decrease with no furloughs necessary because of the cuts they made previously.
  • At this time it doesn’t appear likely that anyone in the FWS fire program will be furloughed.
  • Some of those in the higher levels of the agency are thinking that a “workforce reduction” may be required later. They may have to cut back on positions and/or conduct directed reassignments to prepare for future budget reductions.
  • The cuts the agency absorbed previously, before sequestration, have already created significant adverse impacts on their fire management capabilities.
  • There could be additional reductions when or if the Continuing Resolution budget is passed in the next couple of months.
  • Decisions on whether to stop conducting prescribed fire and fuels treatment projects will be up to each region.
  • Some regions have issued a moratorium on all prescribed burning.
  • Decisions on whether to hire fire-funded seasonals will be up to each region.
  • Required training can still occur, but no other training will be allowed.
  • Sequestration could be a “walk in the park” compared to future possible budget cuts.
  • Some were told, “It’s OK to do less with less. Don’t feel you have to knock yourselves out working hours of comp. time trying to maintain the level of performance you were able to do previously.” And, “Don’t let all the distractions going on right now interfere with your focus on safety.”

More information at Wildfire Today about the recent budget reductions in the federal wildland fire agencies:


In spite of sequester, BLM to hire approximately same number of temporary fire personnel as last year

BLMEven with the budget sequester reducing their budget by about five percent, the Bureau of Land Management expects to hire approximately 1,000 temporary fire and aviation personnel this fire season. According to Don Smurthwaite, a spokesperson for the BLM who provided the information, that is about the same as last year and is a result of the Department of Interior granting the BLM an exception to the hiring freeze.

How the sequestration affects aviation, engines, hotshots and fuel reduction projects remains to be seen, but those numbers should be determined over the next few weeks, Mr. Smurthwaite said.

Sequestration budget cuts update, March 4, 2013

We are getting a little more information about the effects of the sequestration budget cuts within the federal agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities. The cuts went into effect on Friday, March 1, when President Obama signed an Executive Order, but most of the details have not yet trickled down to the agencies. They are still in a planning mode, figuring out exactly how the cuts will be implemented.

Here a few more things we have learned since our last update about effects in the Department of Interior on March 4 (which included a letter from the Secretary of Interior) and a broader look on March 1:

National Park Service

The NPS has not received the actual numbers yet, according to Roberta D’Amico their Branch Chief for Communication and Education in the Division of Fire and Aviation Management, but they expect a five percent reduction in the wildland fire budget. This cut comes at the mid point of the fiscal year, which means they have six months left to reduce the expenditures by five percent for the entire year’s budget.

A primary goal of the NPS during this budget crunch, Ms. D’Amico said, is to avoid furloughing any permanent employees. However they expect to hire fewer seasonal firefighters, and the ones that do get hired will most likely not work as many pay periods as they have in past fire seasons. Large contracts that have not yet started are being suspended at least temporarily, and travel, which had already been reduced substantially is being cut back even more.

Funding for NPS prescribed fire and other fuel management projects will be less than last year.

The NPS expects that they can still maintain fire readiness and provide fire suppression capability at a safe level.

The video below features the Director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, elaborating on the effects of the budget cuts.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA is also affected by a five percent reduction in funding levels, which will result in a reduction to FEMA’s State and Local grant funding. The FIRE and SAFER grant programs to local fire departments will be cut by a total of $104 million.