In testimony today before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell presented the Forest Service forecast on the upcoming 2015 fire season and his agency’s strategy to position resources and personnel to address the wildfire threat.
“We anticipate another active fire year as above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States and above normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer,” said Chief Tidwell.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes a proposal to reform the way that wildfire suppression is funded. The Administration’s proposal aligns with the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The reforms contained in these proposals are necessary and vital to ensure the Forest Service is able to continue to deliver the full scope of its mission.
On anticipated wildfire activity
The United States and the rest of the world are experiencing heightened levels of wildfire activity. Extreme wildfire threatens lives and the natural resources people need and value, such as clean, abundant water; clean air; fish and wildlife habitat; open space for recreation; and other forest products and services. This trend of above average fire activity is expected to continue in 2015. Forest Service research indicates there is a 90 percent chance that this year’s fire suppression costs will be between $794 million and $1.657 billion for the Forest Service, with a median estimate of $1.225 billion. The median is above the 10 year average and would force the Forest Service to leverage funding from other vital land management programs to support suppression operations.
Wildfire management strategy
The Forest Service will work extensively with partners within the Department of Interior, as well as state and local firefighting organizations, to support wildland fire management operations. The entire wildland fire community will continue to utilize the National Cohesive Strategy to align priorities and define responsibilities across wildfire activities including prevention, fuels treatments and response.
Within the FY15 appropriation for Wildland Fire Management the Forest Service will be able to sustain comparable levels of firefighting assets as in previous years. The Forest Service will have approximately 10,000 firefighters available for the upcoming fire season, as well as up to 21 airtankers available for operations on exclusive use contracts, airtankers available through Call When Needed contracts and the capability to mobilize cooperator air tankers, if available, through agreements with the state of Alaska and Canada. In coordination with the military there are also eight Mobile Airborne Firefighting System capable C-130’s available to meet surge requirements, as well as an extensive fleet of more than 100 helicopters available to support operations.
On fire suppression costs
Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires has increased due to changing climatic conditions, drought, hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease infestations, nonnative invasive species, and other factors. Funding has not kept pace with the cost of fighting fire. Over the last 10 years, adjusting for inflation, the Forest Service has spent an average of almost $1.13 billion on suppression operations annually.
Since fiscal year 2002, the Forest Service has exceeded its appropriation for fire suppression in all but two years and has transferred funds seven times. Transferring funds to cover the cost of wildfire suppression is disruptive and harmful to other critical Forest Service programs and services, including efforts to reduce wildfire risk through mechanical thinning, prescribed fires, and other means.
Together with our partners in fire management, the Forest Service has worked collaboratively to develop the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, of which fuel treatment is an essential component. In 2015, $32 million of the Hazardous Fuels appropriation was allocated to projects using the Hazardous Fuels Priority Allocation System to assess the likelihood of high intensity fire within populated areas or near important watersheds for municipal water supply. Fifty projects were selected for funding will be assessed to determine progress on meeting Cohesive Strategy goals.
The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program also assists in the agency’s work with partners to conduct hazardous fuel treatments and ecosystem restoration that encourages economic and social sustainability, leverages local resources with national and private resources, reduces wildfire management costs, and addresses the utilization of forest restoration byproducts to offset treatment costs and benefit local economies.