On March 22, Congress passed the $1.3 trillion omnibus budget that not only averted a government shutdown and funded the military, it also solved the “fire borrowing” conundrum that has plagued the Forest Service for years. The bill sets up a contingency account for wildfire fighting funded with up to $2 billion a year for a decade. Now, instead of looting the Forest Service’s management budget when suppression costs exceed the regular fire budget, wildfire fighting costs will be paid for much like other disasters.
The bipartisan bill has been praised by many different groups, and(no surprise here) dissed by others.
Tom Martin, who heads the American Forest Foundation, said, “The great bipartisan work on a fire funding fix shows what can happen when diverse constituents — from landowners to industry to conservationists — and a diverse coalition in Congress work together toward a common cause.” The foundation is part of a coalition of over 100 recreational, timber, conservation, indigenous, and hunting groups that pushed for the dedicated firefighting money.
The spending bill also increases to 20 years the top-end length of wildland stewardship contracts for areas of high fire risk and reduces some environmental review requirements that have tied up thinning and fuel reduction projects for years. And this is where growling gets good. On both sides.
Many environmental groups argue that the “categorical exclusion,” which streamlines approval for logging and fuels reduction efforts on federal land parcels under 3000 acres, will bury public input and sound science. “We are concerned that some parts of the fire-funding deal will make it harder for the public to have a meaningful role in the decision-making process,” said Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst for the Wilderness Society.
Expect these litigation-happy specialists to start throwing spitballs in the very near future.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
I’m glad to see the end of fire borrowing. It has been long sought after and thanks to our congressional leaders. Amazingly, they finally got off the dime and made something happen rather than going through their silly dysfunctional motions and bumping their gums.
However, the funding fix might be in, but don’t expect to see anything change until 2020. We’ll only see $500 million this year for fighting wildfires and $40 million for management projects. The Republicans wanted to stay within 2018-2019 discretionary spending caps, thus setting back full funding until fiscal year 2020.
At least we have something to look forward to in a couple years. Unfortunately, the 3000-acre categorical exclusion provision falls short. As Bob Bishop (R.Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has said, “This bill does very little to restore the health of our nation’s forests.”
We finally got the funding right, but the rest is a Band-Aid.
The Case for Mechanized Wildfire Fighting
One of the surprising things that came out of Fire Season 2017 was the use of a steep slope harvesting combo to battle the Whitewater Fire near Detroit, Oregon, in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
The fire erupted on Sunday, July 23, as a result of lightning strikes in the Whitewater drainage. As the blaze devoured acre upon acre of forest, it began moving toward private land owned by Freres Lumber Company.
Todd Parker, timber manager for Freres, called one of their logging contractors, Siegmund Excavation and Construction, and asked Andrew Seigmund if he could bring his steep slope equipment to help cut a fire line across some extremely steep terrain. Hand crews were on the scene, but they wouldn’t be able to clear the line before the fire overtook them.
In less than three days, they had cut the line, possibly weeks ahead of what a hand crew could have accomplished.
It was the first time a tethered feller buncher had been used in fighting a wildfire in the U.S.
It also raised a huge question. How come the Forest Service, state agencies, BIA and the rest don’t partner with loggers to use their machines to fight more fires? Mechanized ops on wildfires are few and far between. To me, it doesn’t make sense.
A Simple Answer not so Easy
In the last 40 years, most of the logging industry has switched to mechanized ops because it’s safer and faster.
I would think that the Forest Service and all the other agencies would have noticed, but it seems they haven’t a clue.
According to one longtime advocate of using heavy equipment to fight wildfires, Stephen “Obie” O’Brien, Logging Engineer, HETS, Forest Operations Engineering, LLC, most fire people these days are not aware of the advantages forest machines could bring to the firefighting table.
“We’re talking a lack of understanding, and the problem is that understanding was never a problem. In the past, everybody in the Forest Service and most federal and state agencies, was a firefighter first,” he said.
Along with introducing fire managers to the capabilities of forest machines, the biggest hurdles to overcome are governmental bureaucratic roadblocks and fiefdoms. No easy task. Still, advocates like O’Brian and several others keep slapping away trying to wake the minions. Maybe some of the omnibus big bucks coming to the Forest Service will open the door for mechanized firefighting.
For a closer look at what a mechanized wildfire fighting operation looks like, check out a recent post from James Steele, owner of Jocko Consulting, Arlee, Montana, at www.forestoperationsmt.com. It’s a good one.
Fire season forecasts for the Northwest region show quite a difference between Oregon and Washington. The only thing burning now are prescribed fires.
Washington’s snow pack is about normal, but Oregon’s is way below, with some areas experiencing drought conditions already. Some folks have predicted Oregon has the potential for many severe fires, much like 2015.
We’ll soon find out. Fire season is just around the corner.
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!
(Talkback - TWfirecolumn@gmail.com)
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC, Thomson Reuters Foundation, forestoperationsmt.com)
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/USFS
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