DHS studies emerging technology for wildfire response

The project team evaluated over 60 systems

DHS study wildfire technologyIn December of 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator requested the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology research new and emerging technology that could be applied to wildland fire incident response, given the loss of life that occurred in California during the fall of 2017 in Santa Rosa and Ventura.

The project team identified three overarching conclusions that represent consistent themes captured throughout the course of the table top exercises and expert engagements.

  1. Time Criticality of WUI Fire Incidents: WUI fire incidents require immediate protective and response actions to save lives. The conflagration created when a wildland fire enters populated areas is unpredictable and can rapidly devastate these areas, threatening lives. Interventions and solutions that improve decision making and response in the initial minutes of a WUI fire are vital.
  2. Available Technology Solutions Exist: There exist available technologies (both government and commercial), which—if implemented—could immediately help emergency responders reduce the number of lives lost during WUI fire incidents. In particular, these technologies could immediately support ignition detection, fire tracking, public information and warning, evacuation, and responder safety. Improving capabilities in other elements of the WUI response (i.e. preparedness and critical infrastructure) may require investing in adaptable or developable solutions that are not immediately available.
  3. Public Education and Preparedness Measures are Vital: Public education and preparedness are essential to reducing the number of lives lost to WUI fire incidents. There is no solution more effective than preventing an ignition in the first place and ensuring the at-risk communities are prepared at the grassroots level to face wildland fire dangers.

The principal conclusions of this project are distilled into a set of seven key findings. They describe lines of effort addressing priority capability gaps that, if implemented, could substantially improve immediate life-saving efforts during WUI fire incidents. The key findings listed below are considered equally important to this objective and are not listed in any priority order.

  1. Implement and scale the use of state-of-the-art remote sensing assets to provide state and local stakeholders real-time, accurate, low-cost ignition detection and tracking information— especially fire perimeter using a mix of in situ, aerial, and space-based systems.
  2. Improve the ability of available and adaptable public alert and warning technologies to deliver more targeted and effective message across the whole community, particularly to individuals with disabilities and others with Access and Functional Needs (AFN).
  3. Improve use of key public and private social media and internet resources and capabilities to appropriately share data and adapt existing applications to enable more efficient and effective evacuation—e.g., expand and accelerate public-private partnerships through Integrated Public Alert and Warnings System (IPAWS) to include WUI incident-related evacuations, warning, and alerting.
  4. Support broader use of existing fire modeling and forecasting tools for pre-incident planning; while also advancing efforts to create high-confidence, timely WUI fire-specific models that can be used to inform response tactics during extreme conditions.
  5. Increase infrastructure resilience, especially critical infrastructure lifelines and support functions for wildland fire response—e.g., improve the resilience, interoperability, and reliability of communications, power utilities, digital links, and data center infrastructure.
  6. Integrate private, open, and crowdsourced data, resources, and capabilities to improve public safety situational awareness of WUI fire ignition detection and tracking.
  7. Support wide-scale adoption of interoperable, low-cost blue-force tracking technologies that feed near real-time situational awareness across key stakeholders, missions, and operations.

The project team evaluated over 60 existing systems, products, or solutions. Here is an example of how 10 were ranked for how well they addressed requirements.

technology address wildfire management safety

technology address wildfire management safety
Top ten solutions based on how many requirements that solution addresses.

In addition, the team evaluated the solutions for feasibility, affordability, usability, impact, and technology alignment.

The entire 131-page report can be downloaded. 2.8 MB

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

Workforce capacity in the U.S. Forest Service

forest service workforce capacity study

The National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR) conducted an analysis of the capacity of the Forest Service’s workforce. They looked at the existing characteristics of the agency and conducted lengthy interviews with 33 employees in all nine regions.

Topics covered in the interviews:

  • Leadership, culture, and direction,
  • Workforce capacity,
  • Consolidation and zoning,
  • On the ground management, and,
  • Partnerships.

The recommendations of the NAFSR:

  1. Hire employees with skill sets necessary to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.
  2. Totally revamp the hiring process, streamlining procedures, removing all roadblocks and restoring connections with field units.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary administrative burdens.
  4. Increase funding to hire new employees, contract work and enter into partnerships.
  5. Delegate authority to field units.
  6. Implement all actions previously suggested by NAFSR, including administrative reforms and the 2021 budget initiative.

You can download the cover letter (.docx file) the group sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as well as the 11-page report (.pdf file). The documents are intended to be shared with anyone who has an interest.

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

Senate committee discusses Forest Service budget issues with the Chief

5% reduction in USFS budget, fuel reduction funds, air tanker study, CFLRP, and LWCF

CL 415 on Colby Fire
CL-415 on the Colby Fire near Glendora, California, January, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

In addition to grilling the Chief of the Forest Service about hostile workplaces, several other issues were covered in a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A video recording of the hearing is available at the Committee’s website. It begins at 19:48.

At 56:30 in the video Washington Senator Maria Cantwell asked Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about the $545 million that was appropriated for fuel management in the recent omnibus legislation but was not mentioned in the administration’s proposed budget for FY 2020 which begins October 1. The Senator asked for assurances that the funds would still be available and would be used for that purpose. The Chief would not commit to the funds still being available, saying, “We will use whatever resources are given to the agency”.

The Chief reminded the Senator that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Senator Cantwell also mentioned very briefly at 59:00 in the video the availability of CL-415 water scooping air tankers but the issue was not discussed. The Forest Service, even though funds are available and a vendor offered the aircraft at a greatly reduced rate this year in a meeting with Chief Christiansen and Fire Director Shawna Legarza (according to our sources), the agency does not plan to have any scoopers on exclusive use contracts for the second year in a row. Historically the FS does not hold scoopers in high esteem even though they are used extensively in Canada and Europe. The 2012 Rand Study, which the agency attempted to keep secret (and did so successfully for two years), recommended a heavy emphasis on water-scooping air tankers and fewer conventional air tankers, which would have been a monumental shift in the paradigm.

Senator Murkowski said (at 1:39:30 in the video) that during a hearing a year ago the committee was told that results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study would be released “soon”. The study, launched in 2012, is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

However, to date no detailed reports have been released from the AFUE.

The Senator asked about the results of the study, now entering its eighth year. The data is being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.

Chief Christiansen, referring to the lack of any detailed results being released, said, “I absolutely share your concern and your question….. I am low on patience as well, Senator. This is a complex and labor intensive endeavor.”

Senator Murkowski: “But should it really require seven years to get a report like this?”

Chief Christiansen: “To have enough, when you have to take these assessment teams and have to be on the fire scene and to get enough data to get what the trend line is, it does take some time.”

The Chief then referred to a very small amount of preliminary data that was released in a two-page document in March which in a vague manner referred to the probability of success of direct vs. indirect attack by aircraft. This was was reported by Fire Aviation April 8, 2019.

Senator Murkowski asked the Chief to have more details from the AFUE study when the Committee holds their annual fire outlook hearing in about a month.

Since after seven years the Forest Service has not released any significant data about the study, a person has to wonder what have they found that is so embarrassing, controversial, or perhaps critical of specific models of aircraft, retardant products, or vendors?

Some people think the Forest Service will never release the full results of the AFUE study.

The Committee might have to subpoena the data.

Later in the hearing (at 1:43:30) Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is Bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of Bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich expressed concern that the Administration intends for both the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (part of the Forest Service) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (under the Department of the Interior) to be unfunded beginning in October. Again, the Chief mentioned that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.

Referring to the fact that the “fire fix” has reduced the necessity for the Forest Service to borrow funds from unrelated accounts to pay for fire suppression, Senator Heinrich said, “We’re giving you the tools, you’re not using the tools we are giving you.”

How Wildfires Are Polluting Rivers and Threatening Water Supplies

Little Bear Fire
Road 532 on the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico, June 13, 2012. Photo by Kari Greer.

A study conducted at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies looked at the increasing effects that wildfires are having on water supplies. It is titled, How Wildfires Are Polluting Rivers and Threatening Water Supplies. Below is an excerpt.

As hotter and dryer conditions spawn an increasing number of wildfires in North America and around the world, one of the overlooked impacts of these worsening conflagrations is on aquatic environments and drinking water supplies. Just as wildfires can have a regenerative effect on woodlands, so, too, can fires provide some benefits to streams and rivers in burned areas. But scientists are warning that intense and repeated fires can damage the ecology of waterways by exposing them to the sun’s heat, exacerbating flooding and erosion along denuded hillsides, and releasing toxins such as mercury that are often liberated from soil and tree trunks.

The effect of major wildfires on drinking water supplies can also be severe, as evidenced by fires that burned upstream of places such as Fort McMurray in Canada in 2016; Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado in 2002 and 2012; and Canberra, Australia in 2003. Water treatment plants in those places were overwhelmed by sedimentation, dissolved organic carbon, and chemicals that were released by fire.

With fires burning bigger, hotter, and more frequently, the threats to water supplies and aquatic systems are bound to escalate, according to Deborah Martin, a Colorado-based U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist. She points out that an increasing number of regional, national, and global water assessments are now including wildfire in evaluating the risks to drinking water.

Study looks at costs if Utah took over federal lands in the state

An 18-month study by three universities concluded that if Utah took over most of the federal lands in the state they could anticipate revenues of $331.7 million annually while incurring costs of $280 million. Most of the income would be generated by the sale of oil, gas, and coal, while the cost of managing wildfire is estimated at $86.6 million.

The study was undertaken because Utah H.B. 148 seeks the transfer of title to 31.2 million acres of land currently managed by the federal government to the state of Utah. This accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s land area, or five times the amount of land the state currently owns and manages. Most of the federal land in the state would be transferred under the proposal, except for national parks and designated wilderness areas. The graphic below shows the extent of the lands to be transferred.

Federal lands in Utah transfer to state

Below is an excerpt from the portion of the 784-page study that covered wildfire management:


“Wildfire management (WFM) is a significant cost of land management in Utah. The three agencies with primary responsibility in managing WFM in Utah are the BLM, Forest Service and FFSL. From 2003 to 2012, the combined spending by these agencies for WFM averaged $85.6 million annually (adjusted to 2013 dollars). Of this total, suppression costs averaged $30.5 million and non-suppression costs averaged $50.2 million. Table 3.26 shows the average 10-year costs for each agency.

The variability in WFM costs by agency shown in Table 3.26 is more a reflection of aviation capability than it is of efficiency. FFSL has no aviation capability and relies on federal land managers for aviation support essential to its fire suppression efforts. In general, the BLM provides small engine aviation capability while the Forest Service bears the cost for large tanker capabili-ties. These costs are not insignificant, which explains the high suppression costs reported for the Forest Service.

utah wildfire management costs

Suppression is not the largest component of WFM, but it is the most volatile and most difficult to anticipate. The majority of wildfires in Utah are ignited from natural causes. Drought conditions, combined with insect infestations and climate change contribute to not just fire ignition, but fire spread, severity, duration, and ultimately cost. Most of these conditions are outside the control of human intervention.

Although WFM costs in other states are not readily available, wildfire trends for the western states show that the wildfire situation in Utah is comparatively mild. From 2003 to 2012, Utah ranked seventh of 11 western states in number of wildfires and eighth in terms of acres burned.

We expect the 10-year average cost of $86.6 million to manage wildfire in Utah is representative of the costs going forward. Over time, this amount could decrease if the state took a less aggressive approach to suppression and increased investments in fire preparedness and mitigation (reducing hazardous fuels). However, growing fire risks from the bark beetle epidemic, trends towards a drier climate, and development in the wildland-urban interface may increase the costs of fire suppression in excess of current levels.”

Retired aviation professionals to conduct the 6th air tanker study

A crew of retired and current aviation professionals has been assembled to conduct the sixth in an unending series of air tanker and helicopter studies. We wrote about this latest study on June 7 after it was awarded by the U.S. Forest Service to AVID LLC, a company in Virginia. While I could not find any mention of air tankers or wildfire on AVID’s web site except in mentioning one possible function of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the effect of that apparent lack of experience may be minimized by their shrewd hiring of a staff of experts for this $380,000 contract.

Tanker 45 on the Whoopup Fire
Tanker 45 dropping in the smoky Ferguson Canyon on the Whoopup Fire, protecting structures. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Dennis Hulbert, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service after serving as the Aviation Officer for the California Region, told Wildfire Today that he is a part of an assembled a group of professionals that will conduct the study with AVID. The team includes a retired National Assistant Director (Aviation), a Fire Planner/Forest Fire Management Officer/Incident Commander, several retired NASA employees, and some “Industry Professionals PHD- types”. In addition, AVID has some unique aircraft synthesis and analytical tools that can be used to assist these folks.

The AVID/Hulbert group will be guided by an in-house collection of federal employees who are subject matter specialists.

Mr. Hulbert believes that his group needs to define performance measures for firefighting aircraft that would be acceptable to the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, both of which have been critical of the USFS’s earlier air tanker proposals for procuring expensive Lockheed C-130J aircraft costing $80-90 million each. Tom Harbour, National Director for Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, and Mark Rey, former Undersecretary of Agriculture (a position that oversees the USFS) who is now a lobbyist for Lockheed, have both recommended the purchase of C-130Js, but Mr. Harbour may be moving away from that position.

In addition to defining air tanker performance measures, the group should also define them for the U.S. Forest Service, such as an implementation schedule, with dates and names of responsible officials, for moving forward. Accountability can be an effective tool.

The Forest Service should have made decisions about the long-term composition of the fire aviation fleet 10 or 20 years ago. But since they continued to kick the can down the road year after year, and crash after fatal crash, this approach, wielding the expertise of actual wildfire aviation professionals, might be what it will take to move the process forward. Aviation professionals were used in the first four of the earlier studies (and there may have been some on the secret RAND study), but little followup occurred.