Who has said, “we can’t fight fires on the cheap”?

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack tour the site of the 2020 August Complex of fires, August 4, 2021.

When Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said August 4 we can’t manage forests and suppress fires “on the cheap” it was not the first time that concept has been stated. Here is part of what the Secretary said when he was meeting with California Governor Gavin Newsom to discuss state and federal collaboration on ​wildfire response and fuels management across the West:

We are prepared to do a better job [of forest management] if we have the resources to be able to do this… Candidly, I think it’s fair to say over the generations and decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap. We have tried to get by, a little here, a little there, with a little forest management here, a little fire suppression over here, but the reality is this has caught up to us.

We have to significantly beef up our capacity. We have to have more boots on the ground… And we have to make sure our firefighters are better compensated. Governor, that will happen.

We need to do a better job, and more, forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

Looking back at the Wildfire Today archives, here is where we’ve seen that phrase before — excerpts from the articles:

William Scott, September 8, 2012: 

Stop narrowly thinking of fires as a land management issue, and begin treating them as a national security issue. Finally it’s time. We have to develop and field a robust large air tanker fleet of firefighting aircraft. The Forest Service has made a good start, but it still suffers from a culture and attitude of what firefighters call ‘cheapism’, the idea that we can fight wildland fire on the cheap. And that’s no longer acceptable.

Senator Harry Reid, July 19, 2013, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

As firefighters head home from Southern Nevada, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid on Wednesday blamed “climate change” for the intense blaze that consumed nearly 28,000 acres and drove hundreds of residents from their homes around Mount Charleston this month.

Reid said the government should be spending “a lot more” on fire prevention, echoing elected officials who say the Forest Service should move more aggressively to remove brush and undergrowth that turn small fires into huge ones.

“The West is burning,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters in a meeting. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a fire in the Spring Mountains, Charleston range like we just had.

“Why are we having them? Because we have climate change. Things are different. The forests are drier, the winters are shorter, and we have these terrible fires all over the West.”

“This is terribly concerning,” Reid said. Dealing with fire “is something we can’t do on the cheap.”

“We have climate change. It’s here. You can’t deny it,” Reid went on. “Why do you think we are having all these fires?”

Bill Gabbert, February 25, 2018:

The federal government is reducing the numbers of large air tankers and helicopters on exclusive use contracts. Air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13, and Type 1 helicopters over the last year have been reduced from 34 to 28. Cutting back on these firefighting resources is not going to enhance our ability to suppress new fires before they become large, dangerous, and expensive.

Bill Gabbert, March 16, 2018:

OpEd: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

(This was first published on Fire Aviation)

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Secretary of Agriculture says we can’t suppress fires and manage forests on the cheap

“We have to have more boots on the ground”

Governor Gavin Newsom and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
USFS Chief Randy Moore, Governor Gavin Newsom, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, August 6, 2021. Still image from ABC10 video.

On August 4 Governor Gavin Newsom, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and new U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore met at the burn scar of the 2020 August Complex of fires in Northern California to discuss state and federal collaboration on ​wildfire response and fuels management across the West.

During a press availability, Secretary Vilsack uttered words we don’t hear from Chiefs of the Forest Service, or certainly from Secretaries of Agriculture:

We are prepared to do a better job [of forest management] if we have the resources to be able to do this… Candidly, I think it’s fair to say over the generations and decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap. We have tried to get by, a little here, a little there, with a little forest management here, a little fire suppression over here, but the reality is this has caught up to us.

We have to significantly beef up our capacity. We have to have more boots on the ground… And we have to make sure our firefighters are better compensated. Governor, that will happen.

We need to do a better job, and more, forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

Governor Newsom said he has been exploring way to obtain more fire aviation resources, lamented that there are “only a few contracted DC-10s nationwide”, and said he was looking at how “to get the 747 back in our hands, and that’s been a challenge, that thing has been sold, so we’re still working to get some more aerial equipment.” (This statement is queued up in the video below.)

Secretary Vilsack said the Governor’s request for additional aviation resources, “… Came to my desk. One of the challenges we’re working on right now is making sure we get the Defense Department personnel necessary to fly the planes. So sometimes it’s not even the planes, it’s the pilots, the people who know how to fly these planes…I was given instructions to… make sure we have the people in the planes to fly them.”

The Secretary was most likely referring to the military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, MAFFS, which can be loaded into C-130 aircraft to temporarily serve as air tankers. They are the only military air tankers used on wildfires in the U.S.  Each requires a seven-person crew, additional support personnel, and often a third conventional C-130 for every two MAFFS that are activated.

The Secretary’s comment could be the explanation for why only five of the eight MAFFS have been activated this year. On July 27, wondering if there was a specific reason why the remaining three were still parked, I asked US Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea if the three were available if needed. He replied on July 28, “There are 3 additional MAFFS-equipped C-130s that can be brought into service, if needed.”

As of today, August 6, there are still only five MAFFS working.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack tour site of the 2020 August Complex of fires, August 4, 2021. California state government photo.

Secretary of Agriculture holds Wildland Fire Town Hall with employees

US Forest Service headquarters in Washington
US Forest Service headquarters in Washington.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted a virtual “Wildland Fire Town Hall Meeting” Monday. The Forest Service was apparently expecting a large number of employees to attend and established a 10,000-person limit on the Zoom platform.

Here is how the meeting was described in an email sent to Forest Service personnel:

Employees representing fire operations, leadership, research, and wildfire support operations are invited to engage in a conversation with Secretary Vilsack and Chief Christensen. This meeting is intended to be a focused and intimate dialogue with employees from the wildland fire community across the agency, however all employees are invited. There is a limit of 10,000 participants.

Chief Christensen will welcome wildland fire employees, speaking to the risks and leader’s intent for the fire year. Secretary Vilsack will share his leader’s intent on a variety of issues that include extended fire seasons, fire and climate change, wildfire response during COVID 19, and an inclusive workplace environment that focuses on employee safety and well-being. Employees will have an opportunity to share their fire experiences with the Secretary and ask questions.

The meeting was not open to the public but some of those who attended told Wildfire Today that there were about 15 people on the screen who may have had the ability to speak including the Secretary and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. Others represented jobs such as Fire Management Officer, Research Ecologist, Wildland Fire Module Captain, Fuels Specialist, Helitack Captain, and Fire Staff Officer on a Forest.

Tom Vilsack
Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

The individuals that spoke introduced themselves and described their job, sometimes at great length, and then asked the Secretary a question.

The subject of converting seasonal employees to permanent came up at least twice. Climate change, the competitive job market, a diverse workforce, work-life balance, and mental health were other topics discussed according to our sources.

If you attended the event and would like to add more information or have an opinion about the usefulness of a virtual town hall meeting like this, let us know in a comment below, or at the top of the article click on “Leave a comment” or “Comment.”

UPDATE May 18, 2021. We found out today that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland hosted a similar wildland fire management town hall on the same day as Secretary Vilsack’s.

Secretary of Agriculture talks with Division Supervisor running vaccination sites

Working 12-14 hours a day while still doing his regular job as Engine Captain

Secretary of Agriculture conversation Forest Service COVID-19
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on video call with Division Supervisor Jeff Hammond and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christianson. Image from FS video.

The U.S. Forest Service has published a 13-minute video of a conversation with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Division Supervisor Jeff Hammond, and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christianson.

Mr. Hammond is a FS Engine Captain from Prescott, Arizona. In the video uploaded April 12 he said he was in charge of coordinating personnel administering COVID-19 vaccinations at three sites, working 12 to 14 hours a day while also doing his regular job. He is a Type 2 Operations Section Chief on one of the Southwest Geographic Area Incident Managements Teams and is also qualified as a Division Supervisor.

Secretary Vilsack asked detailed questions about Mr. Hammond’s duties in the vaccination programs, coming across as being interested in other people, asking Mr. Hammond about his family and where he was born and raised.

Forest Service Chief vows to protect communities “no matter what the budget”

Tom Tidwell
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 6, 2016.

Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, discussed the 2016 wildfire season in two venues recently. Earlier this month he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, and on Wednesday he talked with the Associated Press while he was in Denver for a conference about forest health.

In Denver Chief Tidwell discussed the outlook for the wildfire season, funding for fire suppression, and Smokey Bear.

Here are some excerpts from the AP article, and below that we have information about the committee testimony.

The upcoming wildfire season across the U.S. isn’t expected to be as bad as last year’s infernos, when a record 15,800 square miles burned, the nation’s top wildland firefighting official said Wednesday.

But parts of the nation should expect a rough season after a warm, dry winter or because of long-term drought, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Southern California, other parts of the Southwest, Alaska and Montana are all vulnerable, he said.

“So where we anticipate the severity of the fire season will not be at the same level as last year, we still expect to have some areas that will be really active,” Tidwell said.


The overall bill for wildfires, including prevention programs and the cost of putting crews, equipment and aircraft on fire lines, is consuming a growing share of the Forest Service budget. That has forced cuts in forestry research, campground and trail maintenance and other areas, Tidwell said.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to pay the cost of fighting the worst fires from natural disaster funds, rather than the Forest Service budget. Tidwell said the largest 1 or 2 percent of wildfires account for about 30 percent of the costs.

Congress has not agreed to the change, but it did approve an additional $520 million for fighting fires this season, Tidwell said.


With a chuckle and a smile, Tidwell defended Smokey Bear, his agency’s memorable mascot, from allegations of making things worse by portraying fire as evil instead of part of the natural cycle that kept forests healthy. Smokey’s original message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

“Really, Smokey was just talking about those human-caused fires which actually occur at the wrong time of the year, not where the natural fire occurs,” Tidwell said. Those are the fires that the Forest Service still wants to stop, he said.

“Smokey Bear gets no blame for the situation we have today,” he said.

On April 6 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief Tidwell discussed many different USFS responsibilities. In his introductory remarks, he summarized wildland fire at 38:50 in the video. (I could not get the video to play using the Chrome browser, but it worked with Firefox. This probably has something to do with the government using Flash to serve the video, a much-hated and insecure platform.) 

The budget request also will provide for the level of fire suppression resources that are needed to be able to protect not only the national forests but to provide the support for the states and our local firefighters. We’ll have the adequate number of large air tankers this year, we’ll have the helicopters, the hot shot crews that we need to be able to continue to provide that support when we work in conjunction with our states and local fires.

Later in the hearing, at 1:07:01 in the video, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall brought up the issue of fire borrowing, scavenging money from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression when the fire funds are depleted during a busy fire season. The Senator mentioned the Chief’s boss, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Secretary apparently had said that funds would not be taken from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression.

Senator Udall:

Secretary Vilsack has been very public in his disappointment about failing to pass the disaster cap adjustment. He has stated for the record that he will not authorize transfers for fire suppression. He said that most recently at the Agriculture appropriations hearing last month. That essentially bars the normal practice of fire borrowing as you know. As I said in my opening statement I share the Secretary’s frustration that we don’t have a cap adjustment in law yet and I hope this is the year that we will be able to enact a fix for the firefighting budget. But until that happens, we must be clear. We expect the Forest Service to use all of its existing legal authority to fight catastrophic wildfires. Chief Tidwell can you assure us that when the time comes the agency will use all available tools to protect the public and the nation’s resources from wildfires.

Chief Tidwell replied:

Senator we will continue to carry out our responsibilities on the ground to be able to protect the communities no matter what the budget. I share the Secretary’s urgency and as I shared with the Chair earlier, the longer this issue goes on the less and less discretion you have to be able to solve it… We will continue to work with the committee, and I am optimistic that so far with the projections that we should be OK with the level of additional funding you have provided. But as the season progresses we definitely will have ongoing discussions about informing the Committee about where we are with the rate of expenditures so that hopefully we can avoid that situation of running out of money for fire suppression this year.

The statement about protecting communities “no matter what the budget” reminded me of an article we posted on April 25, when Jerry Williams, the former Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, in 1995 talked about can-do, make-do, and tragedy.

After the discussion of fire-borrowing, at 1:09:05 in the video Senator Udall asked about the plans for utilizing the seven HC-130H aircraft that in 2013 began the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. They will become the first government-owned/contractor-operated air tankers in the United States federal government. All of them are receiving programmed depot maintenance and will need to have retardant delivery systems installed in addition to new paint. Most of them will also have the wing boxes replaced, a process that takes about 10 months and around $7 million per aircraft.

Tanker 118
Tanker 118, an HC-130H, at McClellan Airport. Photo by Jon Wright, July 25, 2015. In 2016 it will be replaced by another HC-130H that may have the new USFS-approved paint scheme.

In the meantime, this year, like last year, there will be one HC-130H available for firefighting based at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. It will use a borrowed slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) since the Air Force, responsible for maintaining and retrofitting the seven aircraft, has not yet arranged to install the permanent retardant tanks.

Chief Tidwell told the Committee he expects the seven HC-130H air tankers to be operational on the following schedule:

2016: one
2017: two
2018: four
2019: seven, all with permanent retardant delivery systems

Press conference about upcoming wildfire season, with Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture

This is an audio recording of a press conference that occurred Tuesday, June 9, when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell discussed the growing threat of wildfires in the United States – particularly in the West – and announced preparations by both agencies in advance of the 2015 wildfire season. The recording begins as Secretary Vilsack’s opening statement is ending.

The photo is the July, 2012 Myrtle Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota — taken by Bill Gabbert.