NEVADA CITY Calif. Aug. 22, 2008 - According to a memo by Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, obtained by The Wilderness Society, "Total suppression costs are projected to reach $1.6 billion in FY 2008. Appropriated suppression funds total $1.2 billion. At this time, the only option for financing the shortfall is to use the agency's transfer authority." The memo is dated August 4, 2008.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
Fire suppression costs for the fiscal year are already at $1.5 billion. As a result, Forest Service officials are once more raiding all budgets to pay for suppression costs.
The transfers required to avoid deficit spending will cut existing programs, including fire prevention and hazardous fuels management. Kimbell's memo indicated a $400 million shortfall. However, the real shortfall is likely to surpass $700 million.
Forest Service districts all over the country are currently crunching numbers, determining the absolute minimum needed to pay salaries for full-time staff and other mandatory expenses. Everything else, including maintenance and improvements will be deferred to a date uncertain.
Calls to the Forest Service headquarters in Washington D.C. for clarification on the transfers were not returned by publication time.
2009 Budget Shows 15% Cut
During budget hearings in April 2008, Senator Feinstein noted cuts in the proposed FY '09 budget, stating "the Forest Service is being cut nearly 15 percent." Cuts in the Bush administration budget included a 12% cut in firefighter readiness and a 4% cut in hazardous fuels reduction work. The proposed budget for the Forest Service in 2009 totals $4,552,000 billion, including $442 million in mandatory appropriations. $994 million for wildland fire suppression has been budgeted by the administration for fiscal year 2009. Source: USFS FY 2009 Budget Justification.
According to Chris Lancette, communications director for The Wilderness Society, "The short explanation for the Forest Service's current jam is that insufficient funds are appropriated each year for wildfire suppression. Fire funding is fast approaching 50 percent of the agency's budget. By the time the agency uses the $1.9 billion this year, it will have increased its fire suppression budget by 59.5 percent over last year. The increase comes as a response to a variety of factors that include a longer fire season due to climate change, an increase in the number of people who reside in wildfire-prone areas, hazardous fuel build-up, and a budgetary process that bases wildfire suppression funding on a 10-year average cost. That's an average cost that continues to climb as the budget remains limited."
Impacts on programs other than firefighting are widespread. While it is unclear if law enforcement on Forest Service lands will be slashed, "non-critical" programs including research, road management, recreation, heritage and wilderness protection are likely to be put on hold. Temporary staff, new hires and overtime for existing staff were listed in Kimbell's memo as 'suggestions' for cutting.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein's request for $910 million in emergency funding for the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior is in a holding pattern. "We'll try to attach this to any moving spending vehicle as soon as Congress comes back into session," said spokesperson Scott Gerber.
Firefighters' Views Diverge from Forest Service Party Line
Casey Judd, Business Manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, expressed the frustration of many firefighters with the current policy, saying, "We firmly believe that this fiscal mess is a result of the fiscal mismanagement of the fire program by the Forest Service. The Agency insists on trying to manage the program as it did 30-40 years ago, despite the increasing complexities of the job. To compound the problem, those in the Agency responsible for developing and implementing fire program policy and controlling the congressionally appropriated dollars for fire preparedness and hazardous fuels reduction have little to no wildfire experience or expertise. The diversion of these funds 1) reduces the FIRE preparedness resources in the field which, if they were in place, would keep many of these fires small and less costly. Either federal resources must be secured from much greater distances or, 2) the Government reverts to "Plan B" to make up for these missing federal resources by bringing in substantially more expensive non-federal resources."
Recruitment and retention of firefighters have been impacted by pay and benefit issues. At the beginning of June 2008, the vacancy rate in the Pacific Southwest Region (California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands) was at 8.5%, a staffing level called unacceptable by lawmakers. Currently, the staffing levels are at 95.6%, according to R5 spokesman John Heil.
FLAME Act passed by House, no vote in Senate yet
The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act (H.R. 5541) was passed by the House on July 9, 2008. The bill seeks to "provide a supplemental funding source for catastrophic emergency wildland fire suppression activities on Department of the Interior and National Forest System lands, to require the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a cohesive wildland fire management strategy, and for other purposes."
In its current form, the bill does not create an "off budget" account for firefighting costs. If such a provision was introduced, the FLAME Act could be used as the cornerstone of an independent National Fire Service. The creation of such an agency is being advocated by professional firefighters who increasingly have to defer decisions on how to fight fires to line officers with little or no field experience.
Casey Judd voiced his concerns: "While the idea [National Fire Service] may sound attractive, concerns are that another FEMA would be created and do more harm than good. We would like to see some simple, cost-effective changes made in the way the agencies do business both with respect to firefighter pay and benefits and the organizational structure of the fire program management before efforts are made to create a new agency. A key element to those changes would be to get the line officers, Regional Foresters, Forest Supervisors and District Rangers and those that manage the fire program but have little to no fire experience or expertise, out of the FIRE mix and eliminate their control over FIRE budgets. FIRE program policy must move into the 21st century and be developed and implemented by those with FIRE experience and expertise. The FIRE dollars also should be handled and allocated by FIRE folks, not line officers who have no clue on how to run/manage a fire department."
Judd was cautiously optimistic concerning the future of wildland firefighting. "Fortunately Congress is starting to listen and understand that a stronger, more cost-effective/efficient land management agency fire program is attainable, with or without the help/support of those agencies. However Congress must act now to make such changes," he said.
California Fires by the Numbers
The National Interagency Coordination Center, which compiles statistics on all fires in the United States reports that as of today, Northern California had 3,619 fires for this year alone. The acreage consumed by these fires: 896,689. Southern California, for the same time period, had 3,575 fires and lost 362,225 acres. The whole state of California encompasses 163,696 sq. miles and has an estimated population of 36,457,549 with a population density of 234.4 per sq. mile.
Given the population density, fires are aggressively suppressed to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface. Suppression costs for major incidents can average $1 million a day.
Fire season in California typically starts in the fall, although drought patterns over the past years and lack of environmentally responsible fuels management intensify the severity of burns. This year will be no exception. The California Department of Water Resources just released the current conditions, stating "March through July total precipitation 3.4" - driest on record since 1921." No degree in fire behavior analysis is required to predict an above average fire season, given these conditions and the June lightning storm which ignited over 1,200 fires.
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