This week, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) Sally Jewell, and Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Tom Tidwell held a press conference to give a nationwide forecast regarding the upcoming fire season and the readiness of firefighters and equipment deployed. Secretary Vilsack opened with a plea to Congress about the continued need to re-vamp the funding structure for catastrophic-level wildfire disasters. Secretary Vilsack highlighted the fact that the forecast shows there is a 90 percent chance this year's fire suppression costs for the USFS will be between $810 million and $1.62 billion, and for Interior it will be between $281 million and $475 million. He went on to explain that under this scenario, if the USFS were “fully funded” at the 10 year average, they would need to borrow more than $200 million from vegetation management and other fire prevention activities in order to pay for fire suppression costs this year. According to Chief Tidwell, the USFS exceeded their fire suppression budget by $240 million last year.
In 10 of the past 15 years, USFS has utilized forest management funds to pay for suppression costs. "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, since that is what they are, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs that can help reduce the severity and cost of future wildfires." He expressed disappointment that the House Interior Appropriations bill, also released this week, did not provide the change in funding structure sought. Secretary Jewell stated an ongoing commitment to the cause and unwillingness to give up, even if a standalone bill was necessary and urged supporters of the effort to keep fighting. RCRC supports a change to the funding structure, either through the Budget process or a standalone measure, such as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA). RCRC’s letter can be accessed here.
While the fire season is predicted to be average or even milder than most in many parts of the country, the prolonged drought in the west is causing the forecast for California, and other Western states, to continue to be grim. Secretary Vilsack announced that 10,000 fire fighters will be mobilized and 21 air tankers will be in service this year, up from 11 just a few years ago. USFS was able to acquire additional fixed wing aircraft for repurposing from the Coast Guard when they were being decommissioned for a low-cost bump in numbers to their fleet. RCRC’s support letter can be accessed here.
Secretary Jewell also highlighted DOI’s Integrated Rangeland Strategy, previously discussed in the Barbed Wire, as well as a new program utilizing combat veterans in their wildland fire program known as “Team Rubicon.”
Both Secretaries and Chief Tidwell urged the public to prepare their homes and communities for fire season by performing appropriate defensible space work and learning about “Firewise Communities” and “Ready, Set, Go!” programs offered through the agencies and through the website: www.fireadapted.org.