Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced above average fire activity projections for the upcoming 2015 fire wildfire season. To view the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) forecast, visit this website.
Joined by U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, the three highlighted the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires in drought-stricken areas of the West this year and called for reforms in the way the federal government funds wildfire suppression efforts. Additionally, Secretary Jewell announced a partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the veteran-based organization Team Rubicon to provide wildland firefighter training to assist in wildland firefighting efforts this fire season.
“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup, insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Together we are working to ensure that we have the workforce, equipment, and interagency coordination necessary to respond safely and effectively to increasingly severe wildfire seasons. This year the Forest Service will be able to mobilize 10,000 firefighters and 21 next generation and legacy air tankers, along with additional aviation assets that play a crucial role in stopping the spread of wildfires.” Vilsack said the Forest Service (a USDA agency), Interior and other partners continue to suppress approximately 98 percent of fires on initial attack.
“Partnerships and collaborative planning to respond to wildfire are the foundation for effective firefighting,” said Secretary Jewell. “As we approach what could be a tough fire season across the West, we’re doing all we can to ensure that communities are stepping up to be fire-wise and that we have the resources in place to mobilize quickly when fires start.”
The Department of the Interior recently released a strategy to address the increasing threat of wildfires that damage vital sagebrush landscapes and productive rangelands in the West, especially in the Great Basin states of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. The report, An Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy: Final Report to the Secretary of the Interior, May 2015, outlines a comprehensive, science-based approach for addressing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that exacerbate the threat of fire and recommends increased training for rural firefighters and local volunteers as well as positioning fire management resources for more effective rangeland fire response. The report also focuses on the need to aggressively restore fire-impacted landscapes using native seed and local vegetation.
Interior is ready to deploy about 4,500 personnel, including more than 3,200 firefighters and nearly 1,200 support personnel, as well as 700 engines and 130 pieces of heavy equipment in preparation for this year’s wildfire season. The Department will have 100 Single Engine Airtankers (SEATS) ready nationally, as well as two large air tankers in Alaska.
This year, Interior will bolster its fire suppression capacity with help from as many as 400 veterans from Team Rubicon who will begin training and preparing for their Wildland Firefighter Type II certification later this month. This highly skilled corps of veterans will be able to mobilize quickly to assist federal and local efforts in suppressing fire activity. Since 2010, nearly 28,000 Team Rubicon members have deployed across the globe to help respond to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters.
Vilsack and Jewell said effectively and safely managing or suppressing wildland fires as they occur is only one part of the response to more severe wildfire seasons. Community preparedness is also critical. USDA and Interior have been working with at-risk communities to promote community and homeowner involvement in mitigating wildfire risk, reducing hazardous fuels and accomplishing treatments that increase forest health and resilience. This year, the BLM created a position in the fire program and dedicated $500,000 in additional resources to coordinate training and preparedness for Rural Fire Protection Associations and volunteer fire departments to assist in fighting rangeland fires.
The Forest Service is focused on increasing the pace and scale of restoration across the national forest system and working with communities to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Through programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy, restoration work is reducing the likelihood, size and severity of wildfires.
The Forest Service and Interior expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity. The recent forecast indicates there is a 90 percent chance that this year’s fire suppression costs – for the Forest Service – will be between $810 million and $1.62 billion, and that such efforts may cost Interior between $281 million and $475 billion. The high end of both cost projections exceed the budget authority of either agency: the current firefighting budget for the Forest Service and Interior is about $1 billion and $384 million respectively.
In the Forest Service, funding for fire programs has increased from 16 percent of the agency’s total budget in 1995 to 52 percent of the total budget in 2015. Funds spent on fire suppression in the Forest Service have exceeded the budgeted amount in all but five years since 2000. Since 2001, Interior funds spent on fire suppression exceeded the budgeted amount in all but eight years.
Budget shortfalls are covered through transferring, or “borrowing” funds from other Forest Service and Interior programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years, including programs that can help keep forests and rangelands healthy and reduce the threat and cost of future catastrophic wildfires.
“In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combating fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago,” said Vilsack. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen rural economies. One percent of the most severe fires make up 30 percent of fire suppression costs. These fires should be funded like other natural disasters, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs that can help reduce the severity and cost of future wildfires.”
“The President’s budget, as well as pending bi-partisan congressional legislation, includes a proposal to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded,” said Jewell. “These reforms are necessary to ensure that federal land managers can continue to protect our national parks, national forests, public and tribal lands from the destructive force of wildfires, without starving our other important work around fire prevention, trail upkeep and habitat restoration.”
The Secretaries urged the public to do their part to help prevent wildfires while preparing for fire season, noting that most wildfires are human-caused. They urged residents of the more than 70,000 communities at risk from wildfires to take proactive steps to remove flammable materials from around their structures and improve safety by developing community wildfire protection plans. Communities and residents can access educational resources available at www.fireadapted.org and through the “Firewise,” and “Ready, Set, Go!” programs.