Catching Fire: Will Congress Help the Forest Service Manage Those Big Blazes?

Seven HC-130H planes like this one will be transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service to use in fighting wildfires.
Seven HC-130H planes like this one will be transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service to use in fighting wildfires. | Photo: Coast Guard News/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Old Saint Nick left two brightly wrapped packages under the Forest Service's spruced-up Christmas tree this year. Each might help it better respond to wildland fire in the coming decade, predicted to be a hot and dry extension of the current drought that has fueled recent mega-fires.

The first is a set of big, shiny toys: aircraft. Lots of them. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John McCain (R-AZ) negotiated a deal to upgrade and increase the number of the federal agency's firefighting fleet. They inserted language in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H planes to the Forest Service; the Air Force will spend upwards of $130 million to convert them into flame- and water-retardant-dropping aircraft.

These much-needed additions will nearly double the number of planes the Forest Service can send aloft to manage major conflagrations across the west, not least such massive blazes as the Rim Fire in California this past summer and the 2011 Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona.

To insure that more boots and supplies can get to the ground more rapidly, the two senators also secured funding for 15 C-23B+ S Sherpas, military transport planes the Forest Service will employ as "smokejumper platforms."

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The second present is really a Get Well Soon card, a promissory note. It comes in the form of pending legislation before the U.S. Senate that would create a more rational system for tapping emergency dollars to fight wildfires. Formulated by an intriguing coalition of interest groups, including the Intertribal Timber Council, the Society of American Foresters, the National Association of State Foresters, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society, and introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 could have a profound impact on how the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service and other federal land-management agencies underwrite their firefighting activities.

Currently, and disastrously, they are often forced to rob Peter to pay Paul. With their budgets shortchanged by congressional cuts, and simultaneously confronted with increased fire intensities due to climate-disrupted alterations to forests and grasslands, the BLM, USFS, and NPS at times have run out of cash to fight fires. That's been especially true when they combat those most-expensive blazes burning through the urban-wildland interface.

Since they cannot shut off the hoses, pull back the firefighters, and ground aerial support while the flames still flare, the agencies borrow dollars from other budget lines. Most galling of these transfers has been from those programs focused on fire-prevention timber harvests and prescribed burning that might have reduced the number of blackened neighborhoods in the first place. In recent years, the Forest Service has spent almost 50 percent of its annual budget fighting fire, an expenditure that has crippled its ability to be an effective steward of the 193 million acres under its care.

Another contributing factor is an earlier legislative fix that fixed nothing. The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to have established a separate emergency firefighting-funding source for when regular appropriations ran out. It failed because congressional appropriators could not keep their hands off this tantalizing pot of money.

"Congress took $200 million from the fund in 2011, as a part of the deal to keep the government running in the debt-ceiling standoff," Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman pointed out in August. It then "took another $240 million in surplus funds in 2012 and made the cuts again in 2013."

Enter the Fire Suppression Funding Coalition, which drafted the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that Senators Wyden and Crapo introduced just before Christmas. If enacted, it will segregate emergency firefighting funds from other USFS and Department of Interior dollars designated for land management, a process that mimics other federal funding mechanisms for natural disasters, such as those underwriting FEMA's relief work. It would also "significantly minimize the need to transfer funds from non-suppression accounts when suppression funds are depleted," freeing up significant investments in fire-prevention treatment.

Noted Cecilia Clavet, Senior Policy Advisor on Fire and Forest Restoration for the Nature Conservancy: "We're asking House and Senate appropriators to adopt the language in the Wyden/Crapo bill as they work to fund the remainder of FY2014" because we "cannot afford another year of inadequate funding levels that force agencies to take away from already constrained programs, including the very ones that would decrease fire risk and costs like restoration."

Should Congress respond as Clavet and her peers desire and pass this legislative initiative, and if, more importantly, it can refrain in the future from stripping away these sequestered funds, then this act -- in combination with the new airplanes that have been added to the Forest Service's arsenal -- might make for a happier new year for those wearing the USFS Pine Tree badge.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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