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Q's Perspective on Forest Service Fire, 1.5 Years after Retirement

from TheySaid, 11/12/07

I was recently asked my perspective of the Forest Service since my retirement a year and a half ago. Without being a “side line quarter-back,” what would I change?

I’ll begin with budget! This last fiscal year approximately 51% of the agencies budget was for fire and fuels. In fiscal 2006 it spent approximately 45% of its funds on fire, hurricanes, and other incidents in which it had responsibility and or was called upon to act. In '06 about $300 million was taken from the fire/fuels budget at the Washington Office level for various other programs and support. In '07 this number increased to $ 400 million. These numbers in themselves are not alarming. It is the trickle down effect that becomes the concern, or what finally gets to those who do the work on the ground.

The pre-suppression budget doesn’t just occur from someone’s wild imagination. The numbers are generated from the National Fire Plan Model (NFPM). It defines needed initial attack levels in order to minimize loss of resources and suppression cost. It has been used for many years and even though it is limiting in scope it has been shown to be a fairly accurate tool for Initial Attack (IA) needs. There are countless cases of forests and regions ignoring the pre identified IA levels and finding themselves far short of their needs for IA resulting in escapes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to finally bring a fire under control. In the year 2000 after the many fires that occurred in Montana the administration supported the request by the Forest Service to fully fund the National Fire Plan in hopes that this would reduce the mass destruction and cost of large fires. Even though the plan had been sanctioned for many years, this was the first time the plan was fully funded and direction was to implement the plan at the 100% level. Funding had always been far short, usually to about the 60% IA level. By 2004 Region 5 had purchased most of the additional assets needed to meet the plan and was very close to complying with the direction from the Washington Office. I’m of the understanding that some time in 2005 OMB was upset with the amount of money the agency was spending in the pre/post suppression mode and wanted a model that would show less needs in terms of dollars with the same success. Since full funding for NFPM did not dramatically reduce suppression cost, there was the call for a different model. As of a year ago the new model had proven invalid. Reductions in IA resources used in the model in fact showed substantial increases in escapes fires from Initial Attack and increased cost. The objective of OMB to reduce the pre and post suppression effort by using a model showing less preparedness dollars, resulted in an increase of suppression expenditures. Understand, the agency was given more funds for pre-suppression and for fuels reduction than ever before in the year 2000. While Region 5 was actually using the funds for their intended purpose, other regions used the additional funds for other than preparedness, thus the additional resources were not showing up. As a matter of fact Region 5 became the primary supplier of suppression resources and Incident Management Teams for the nation. It was obvious by the lack of available resources in other regions the funds were going elsewhere.

In 2005 and '06 the Washington Office made huge dips into the pre-suppression (preparedness) and fuels budgets to be used for other than fire/fuels. The fire and fuels funds became the primary “cash trough” for the agency to feed its other wants. This was not done because the agency was given too much money in fire/fuels, rather the WO leadership had wants in other areas that were not funded. Leadership at the WO and RO levels would take dollars from Fire at the onset of the fiscal season for its other wants and hope the fire season would be slow and stay within the total agency allocated budget. Unfortunately the cost of fighting fire continued to grow and, there were no “quiet” seasons to speak of, resulting in over spending at the end of the year with funds having to be taken from engineering, recreation, etc to pay for part of the feeding frenzy that occurred at the beginning of the year.

How effective was the full implementation of the NFPM? 
The 2004 season resulted in the driest season ever recorded for California. Yet, because of the build-up of IA resources in the region, there were few major fires in California. The agency spent a lot of money on the NFPM and Region 5 proved it worked. However, in '05 the agency took so much money off the top, the region had to go to a 5 day staffing instead of the usual 7, significantly reducing IA capability and timely support for escape fires. On the one hand there are major complaints of the cost of fighting large fires, on the other the dollars to reduce large fires and to accomplish fuels work is taken and used for something else. One of the cornerstones for keeping suppression cost down is maintaining an effective level of IA resources. The reduction of 7 day coverage meant instead of having 274 engines 7 days a week, the 2 days off meant a reduction of about 35%. Budget allocated to the region did not cover the other 2 days. With a fleet of 274 engines and over 21 million acres to cover, in California as well as coverage on other federal and state lands, the reduction of IA forces is significant. The bottom line is more escapes, greater loss of natural resources, private property and increased exposure to both the public and the firefighter with bigger and faster moving fires. In terms of cost, the increase cost of suppression speaks for itself.

The trickle down effect continues in the fuels program as well. In '06 the region was given approximately $48 million in fuels dollars. By the time the Quincy Library funding was met and the dollars were taken out by other than fire at the Regional level, there were about 16-18 million to distribute to the forests. This is a lot of money, but in terms of the area and fuels problem in California it falls way short of meeting minimal needs. Examples of this include: the 3000 plus Santine/Burton lots under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service at the Lake Tahoe Basin have never been funded for fuels reduction. The beetle infestation problem in Southern California has never been fully funded nor has the rest of the region been funded sufficiently to make a significant difference to reduce cost and loss from wildfire. As a matter of fact there is yet to be a Land Management Plan in the Forest Service in California that once written has been “gamed” to test if it could survive from the most frequent and catastrophic event in the state, wildfire! There have been numerous reviews and studies showing that fuels treatments have played a major role in reducing fire spread and resource damage. There have also been frequent studies showing the initial attack (IA) levels needed to be successful. These studies have shown it is more effective and less costly to use our own resources rather than contractors. In spite of these many reviews, the agency is not willing to use the funds for their intended purpose and continues to increase the use of contractors during suppression. As of late the use in contract engines and crews has increased significantly. Approximately 60-70% of total suppression cost for fire suppression goes to contractors with a trend to increase their use. This only exacerbates the ever increase cost of fighting fire. The trickle down effect is like a roaring flood only with little water. If the agency truly believes life, property and our natural resources are its real priorities, it needs to walk the talk, that is put the funds on the ground to do that for which it was intended. IA crews do a lot of good work in fuels reduction projects and at a lesser cost than contractors. The use of fuels dollars on other than fuels projects results in increased suppression cost, increased difficulty to control a fire and increase potential for greater resource loss and private property as well. It increases the exposure of our public in the direct path of harm's way and significantly increases the exposure to our public servants, especially to our firefighters trying to protect the public, their homes and our natural resources.

I find it disturbing that several professors have written that in its effort to reduce large fires, full suppression became the standard for controlling wild land fire by the Forest Service. Forest fire suppression was one of the big reasons the agency was established, to get a handle on the large devastating fires that were plaguing the landscape. The USFS struggled for years to find ways to put out fires as quickly as possible due to their mass destruction and loss of life. It went from foot patrols, to horseback to lookouts to permanent fire crews to what we have today. What we have in common today and what we had then are thousands of unmanaged forests with tons of dead and down fuel. It was recognized then and the situation has not changed today. Massive logging without clean up was a formula for disaster as are the thousands of acres of unmanaged stands with massive fuels build up we have today. The results of the trickle down of dollars is creating a catastrophic event that will be far greater the 2003 fire siege.

Today in California alone there are over 35 million residents. The mediterranean climate in California is the warmest of its kind in the world. Two thirds (2/3) of all fires are started by people in the state, and the east wind corridors are well identified and have been occurring for hundreds of years. Adjacent to these vast forests are homes built under outdated building codes, many of which are decaying, as are our forests. All this is over thousands of acres of brush and timber with very little fuels management. In addition the checkered ownership of federal and private lands adds to this very complex environment. To say this full suppression mode is the reason for these large fires makes about as much sense as saying structure fires occur because fire departments try to put them out! The population surrounding the forests is on a steep increase as is the recreational use. Without a full suppression mode there is a significant increase potential of loss of life. Within California there are few opportunities to allow fire to burn without some kind of constant oversight. If fire is to be used as a tool to reduce fuels loadings, prescribed fire can and should be used even in those areas designated as wilderness. The air sheds alone limit the use of prolonged “natural fire.” The combination described is about when a major fire will occur causing a destruction level we have not yet seen. Something can still be done, but requires use of existing funds for their intended purpose.

Another area that needs to be addressed is the what the Forest Service is paying for when it should come from some other funding source. Over the years the Forest Service has been saddled with paying out of its appropriated funds not only for wild land fire but for hurricane support, structure protection, practically anything requiring expertise in the Incident Command System. Even the support the Incident Management Teams gave during the 9/11 attack was paid out of appropriated dollars from the Forest Service budget. Expenditures for wild land fire are coded under what is called a “P” code to pay for fire suppression. If the incident is other than wild land fire, expenditures are coded under what is called an “F” code. Whether a P or F code, the funds come out of appropriated dollars to the agency. This means all the work on the shuttle recovery, hurricanes, 9/11 was all charged to an “F” code which was used only for tracking and the funds still came from the Forest Service budget.

Some years ago the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior agreed to not charge the other for fire suppression costs. Any suppression assistance one gives to the other is free. As it turns out, the Forest Service pays for most of the suppression costs incurred on Interior lands such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS). This is because the Forest Service has most of the suppression resources from Incident Management Teams to crews, etc. This is very, very costly to the Forest Service and is no longer affordable. However, fires that need Incident Management Teams or fire crews from the Forest Service on Department of Defense lands such as military reservations (Camp Pendleton), DOD does reimburse the Forest Service for any expenses incurred. And so it should be also for the Dept of Interior. Why should the Forest Service pay for suppression of fires on somebody else’s jurisdiction?

The argument for doing this is federal dollars are federal dollars! At the end of the fiscal year, however, there is a balancing of the books. Any expenses on a "P" or "F" code are charged to the Forest Service budget which means funds from recreation, engineering dept, etc need to cough up the shortages even if the expenditures were for an agency other than ours. Bottom line is that Interior gets off for free as does support for FEMA. It is obvious the balancing of the "books" demanded of the agency at end of the fiscal year, doesn’t fit with the "federal dollars are federal dollars" argument, the reason there is no need to have Interior or FEMA pay for services rendered. These kinds of agreements which result in The Forest Service not getting reimbursed, need to be dropped or revised.

Today FEMA is very much involved in the payment of suppression costs to state and local fire department once the suppression cost in that state has exceeded a pre identified floor cost for that state. The floor cost can be one fire or the accumulation of several fires. Today FEMA will pay up to 75% of those suppression costs back to the state and local fire. Any funds the Forest Service spends on fire, again comes from its appropriated budget and not from FEMA. However in the last few years the majority of high cost fires in California occurred along the border of private and federal land holdings, thus more effort and cost in protecting structures than ever before, and the urban interface is growing. The Forest Service is authorized to suppress (externally) structure fires to keep them from spreading to federal jurisdiction. There has been a lot of discussion recently about "pulling" back from fighting structures fires, not our job, let somebody else do it, etc. Those who think this is are truly naïve in that a structure is another concentration of fuel often surrounded by federal lands. Suppressing the structure fire often results in keeping the fire from spreading to the National Forests. I suggest rather than pull back, have FEMA fund structure suppression. Large fires usually result in the addition of a "structure division or branch", the focus of which is primarily structure protection. If FEMA can pay for 75% of state and local suppression, it can also pay for the cost incurred with structure branches by the Federal agencies which would reinforce the integrity of the agencies' use of its funds for "wild land fire". With the use of "Cost Apportionment", identification of these costs will be fairly easy to track. It’s time the Forest Service is given support by other agencies for the expanding use of the Forest Service in other than fire. The Forest Service budget is being butchered both internally as well as externally; this needs to stop. The rules that govern Forest Service expenditures need to be reviewed and updated.

It is also time for the agency to walk the talk and to bring back the integrity of the use of the dollar and spend it for its intended purpose. Until this happens, protection of the fire fighter, the public, private property, or our natural resources has little to no credibility to those on the ground, to those who have lost loved ones while in the line of duty, to those who have lost homes due to wild land fire. Finally, it is time for the politicians, the environmentalists, the city and county officials to recognize that there are "fire corridors" as there are hurricane corridors and flood plains, and that if human habitation is to occur in these areas, human life must be shown to be paramount by the actions taken in these areas. This includes upgrading building codes, egress, thinning of the forests, etc. If this doesn’t change, the continuation of events as the Laguna Fire, the '03 and '07 Sieges should come as no surprise.


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