By Lindsay Mohlere
Word has it that the huge $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, now ping-ponging around the hallowed halls of government in Washington D.C., has long-awaited provisions for the nation’s wildfire fighters.
Inside the Package
Parts of the bill include funding for fire-spotting satellites and converting federal seasonal wildland firefighters to full-time positions, complete with benefits. If passed, $3.4 billion would go toward wildfire fighting efforts.
The bill would order the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments — which together employ some 15,000 wildland firefighters — to start working with the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government’s human resources agency, on a new set of job classifications for firefighters. Changing job classifications is the first step toward raising pay for all firefighters.
For more than a year, a group of 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats have been working on presenting the package. According to Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock California, the bill includes funding to convert 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to full-time status and give every federal firefighter a pay raise — about $20,000 per year. It would also include $80 million for new supercomputers to predict wildfires, $100 million in sensors to track fires as soon as they start, and $20 million for fire spotting satellites. The geostationary satellites can detect new hot spots, wind shifts, and smoke movement — all important information for air assets and crews on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service warned that federal firefighter staffing shortages potentially threaten the agency’s response to the country’s massive wildfires, which have been growing in size and intensity. Little doubt the reason for low staff numbers comes from the fact that firefighters are currently paid about as much as a burger flipper at Burger King. The money is about the same but the benefits and safe working environment of the restaurants trump the firefighter gig.
So far this year (as of this writing), there have been 45,971 fires that have burned more than 5.9 million acres across the country, with the bulk of that figure landing in the West. More than 4,500 homes, commercial properties, and other buildings have been destroyed.
In a prepared statement, before the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said, “Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local, and private entities in some areas of the United States. And now fire seasons have become fire years, making it imperative to ensure a robust year-round workforce available to respond at any time.”
Drone Incursions Still a Problem
A few years ago, when drones were new to the public, they were the coolest of the cool and every geek wanted one. Equipped with HD technology, drones could take incredible photos and video while the operators stayed stationary and wiggled the joystick on the control unit.
Somewhere along the line, despite FAA regulations prohibiting flight incursions in certain conditions, the drone fanatics started filming wildfires. With these little zoom balls flying through the air, it is easy to understand that unauthorized drone flights are a safety issue for firefighting air assets.
The public drone incursion problem keeps popping up its ugly head. So far this year, there have been 21 drone incursions that have impacted air operations over wildfires across the nation. Most of the trouble has occurred in California and Washington, where drone flights have fouled up aerial firefighting efforts throughout fire season.
As of October 7, 2021, 16 aerial wildfire fighting operations have been shut down this year, with air assets grounded — and I’m sure the number will grow. The six-year average for drone incursions is 29, with 2016 taking the cake for the most drone invasions with 41. The risk of getting caught flying a drone over restricted airspace is somewhat minimal, but if the operator is ever caught, the fines and property seizures can be steep.
The P.R. line from the National Interagency Fire Center has been “If You Fly, We Can’t.” It’s a simple tag line to understand, but the numbskulls with their toy airplanes still seem to have missed the point.
DNA Brings Down Tree Thieves
It is often difficult to determine how a wildfire started. Human error is the percentage lead, but the actual root cause is usually more difficult to pinpoint. However, that is not the case of the 2018 Maple Fire that tore through Washington State’s Olympic National Forest, scorching more than 3,300 acres of land and destroying dozens of valuable bigleaf maple trees.
Thanks to sharp-eyed firefighters, oversized stumps with sawed-off limbs were discovered in the devastation left by the fire. The limbs were a sign that the flames could have been the work of thieves harvesting illegal timber. Because the crime was on federal property, federal investigators jumped on the case. It wasn’t too long before the Feds had fingered two men for the crime.
In 2019, Justin Wilke and Shawn Williams were convicted of stealing the trees. In a first for a federal criminal trial, prosecutors used tree DNA to prove the Maple Fire remains matched that of the timber the men sold to local mills. In addition to the theft charges and other felonies associated with the crime, the men were also charged with setting the Maple Fire.
Apparently, the tree that the thieves had selected to harvest housed a large nest of bees, which would have prevented the men from harvesting the tree. To clear the nest, the men tried household hornet spray, and when that failed to produce the necessary results, they poured gasoline on the nest and set it afire. The nest fire quickly ignited the tree leaves and then the wind joined in, sending large embers into other trees and the forest floor. Dumb and Dumber tried to stop the blaze with bottled water but failed.
Wilke and Williams were convicted of stealing the trees and starting the fire. The Maple Fire cost about $4.2 million to contain.
That’s a wrap.
Stay safe out there.
Talk back at [email protected]. (Source: USDA, Government Executive Newsletter, Bend Bulletin, WSJ, NBC)
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