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.

US Forest Service awards contract for a sixth air tanker study

Tanker 45, P2V
Tanker 45, a P2V, preparing to drop on the Whoopup fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded a contract for another air tanker study, the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years. It was given Friday June 1 to AVID LLC, a company in Virginia, which will receive $380,000 from the taxpayers, about half of what RAND received for their secret study, described by the USFS, “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” This additional air tanker study should be finished in November. We will be curious to see if the USFS keeps this one secret also.

In scanning AVID’s web site, we can find no mention of wildfire, dispatching, aerial firefighting tactics, or air tankers. Some of the projects they have been involved with include software to determine the best route for an aircraft to reduce noise on takeoff, a small hovering unmanned aerial vehicle, and aerospace engineering.

The primary objective of this additional study is to “identify the appropriate number and types of aviation resources necessary to effectively meet future fire management needs”. In describing the contract, the USFS wrote:

The aerial firefighting mission is extremely complex in terms of aircraft use, aircraft characteristics, bases, contracts, costs, dispatching, mission objectives, tactics, strategy and communications.

It baffles me that a company with no apparent experience in the above, can provide a product that will be worth $380,000 of taxpayers’ money. What it will likely accomplish for the USFS is another six-month delay before they actually have to make a serious, detailed decision about rebuilding the air tanker fleet which, through neglect, has atrophied, from 44 in 2002 to the 9 we have today.

This reduction in the air tanker fleet has made fast, effective initial attack with ground AND air resources a quaint idea in our memory. If fires are not caught when they are small, some of them become large, and a few grow into mega-fires, consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and tens of millions of our dollars.

The U.S. taxpayers can only hope that this sixth air tanker study finally gives the USFS Fire and Aviation Management folks the answer they have been wanting, so we can cease this ridiculous analysis paralysis.

We wrote more about this sixth air tanker study in March.

The release of the RAND air tanker report is delayed

analysis paralysisThe air tanker report that the U.S. Forest Service commissioned but refuses to release even after a Freedom of Information Act Request, was not released in May by the RAND Corporation as promised. RAND told Wildfire Today in March that they had no problem releasing the report to the public even though the USFS said  “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4″. The USFS refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” The USFS said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

Lisa Sodders of RAND told Wildfire Today on Monday that the report is still undergoing peer review “both internally and externally”, and explained that some of the reviews are taking longer than anticipated. RAND expects to release the report “in the coming weeks”, Ms. Sodders said.

The external reviews are probably the ones that are holding up the process, I’m thinking.

The USFS Forest Service paid RAND $840,000 for the study. This was the fifth study on air tankers since 1996. A sixth one is underway now, commissioned, again, by the U.S. Forest Service, but paid for, again, by the U.S. taxpayers.

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