The U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, Department of Defense and FEMA continue to support efforts to protect life, public safety and aid in community recovery from wildfires and subsequent flash flooding in multiple Western states. On June 28, President Obama approved a disaster declaration for Colorado providing additional support to state and local officials responding to the fires, as well as federal assistance for individuals affected by the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack yesterday announced a package of program improvements that will deliver faster and more flexible assistance to farmers and ranchers devastated by natural disasters, including wildfires. Secretary Vilsack announced three significant improvements to decades-old USDA programs and processes related to Secretarial disaster designations: a final rule that simplifies the process for Secretarial disaster designations and will result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters; a reduced interest rate for emergency loans; and lowers the payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands qualified for emergency haying and grazing in 2012.
A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low interest emergency loans. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to designate disaster counties to make disaster assistance programs available to farmers and ranchers. During times of need, USDA has historically responded to disasters across the country by providing direct support, disaster assistance, technical assistance, and access to credit. USDA's low-interest emergency loans have helped producers recover from losses due to drought, flooding, wildfire and other natural disasters for decades.
The U.S. Forest Service yesterday reported that as the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado is fully contained after burning more than 18,200 acres west of Colorado Springs and destroying over 340 homes. Reassignment of resources is continuing as personnel and assets are being moved to support other suppression activities throughout the West.
Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) specialists are on the ground in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, to provide emergency stabilization to prevent additional damage to life, property or natural resources. They will be looking for changes in soil properties and the soil's capacity to absorb precipitation to mitigate erosion potential. BAER teams are staffed by specially trained professionals: hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, vegetation specialists, archeologists, and others who rapidly evaluate the burned area and prescribe emergency stabilization treatments.
The recent rains and high humidity across the Rocky Mountain and Northern Rockies Regions has brought some relief to those regions, while other areas of the country continue to experience critical fire weather and dry lightning. Today, there are 38 large wildfires reported across the United States in the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Alaska.
18 of the 38 large wildfires reported across the United States are burning in Idaho, where high winds and dry lightning from the storms crossing Idaho on July 10 caused an increase in wildfire activity in that area. Currently, more than 1400 personnel, including more than 500 from the Department of the Interior, are battling the fires in Idaho, supported by 80 fire engines, 22 dozers, 12 water tenders, and 11 helicopters. Two of the large Idaho wildfires, including the Benwalk Fire that closed I-84 three nights ago and the Box Canyon Fire that started on July 10 were contained yesterday. Critical fire weather with the potential for dry lightning continues to be forecasted across the region.
Six Department of Defense (DoD) C-130 aircraft equipped with U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) and under the command and control of U.S. Northern Command continue to support efforts to control fires in the Rocky Mountain region and western United States at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. As of Wednesday, DoD aircraft have conducted 198 air drops and discharged more than 498,000 gallons of retardant. MAFFS are operating from Utah and Boise, with the 146th Airlift Wing operating from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and the 153rd Airlift Wing and the 302 Airlift Wing operating from Boise.
Currently, more than 7,000 personnel, more than 480 fire engines, 19 large airtankers, including six MAFFS-equipped C-130s, as well as 71 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) are available nationally to combat fires burning across the United States.
The State of Alaska has sent 10 crews to support wildfire suppression efforts in the Western states, predominantly made up of Alaska Natives from the communities of Nondalton, Kenai, Copper River, Venetie, Fort Yukon, St. Michael, Koyuk, Selawik, Shageluk, Scammon Bay.
In Colorado, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has designated all counties as primary Secretarially designated natural disaster counties, except Delta and San Juan which are contiguous disaster counties, due to the damage caused by drought, excessive heat, and high winds. This designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low interest emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency, provided that eligibility requirements are met. Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for loans to help cover part of their actual losses.
As part of heightened efforts, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have completed training of two Army battalions at Fort Carson, located near Colorado Springs, Colo., to potentially serve as ground firefighters to boost the number of firefighters available for wildfire suppression throughout the nation. The training involves one day of classroom training and two days of field training. During the classroom training, soldiers learn about wildfire suppression including fire behavior and fireline safety. During field training, soldiers receive instruction in fire suppression methods and procedures.
On July 3, FEMA approved two additional Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) for the Shingle fire in Kane County, Utah and for the Oil Creek fire in Weston County, Wyoming. This brings the overall total number of FMAGs approved for states during this fire season to 24. Other states that have received these important grants include Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas.
FMAGs are provided through the Disaster Relief Fund and made available by FEMA to assist in covering 75 percent of the eligible state and local costs of fighting fires that threaten to cause a major disaster. Eligible items can include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; mobilization and demobilization activities; and tools, materials and supplies.
On July 1, the NIFC released its latest National Wildland Significant Fire Potential Outlook for July-October 2012, which provides coordinated federal, state, local and tribal government agencies, first responders and the public with information about the likelihood that wildland fire events will require mobilization of additional resources from outside the area in which the fire situation originates. Updated outlooks are released by NIFC on the first of every month.
The major disaster declaration for Colorado, approved by President Obama on June 28, makes federal funding available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance, for El Paso and Larimer Counties impacted by the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires. Federal funding is also available for Crisis Counseling and Disaster Unemployment Assistance for affected individuals in El Paso and Larimer Counties impacted by the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires. Additional forms of assistance may be designated as part of the disaster declaration once joint federal, state and local damage assessments are fully completed.
Overall, federal partners have deployed 12 Incident Management Teams (IMT), National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams, and an Area Command Team to help provide a coordinated and aggressive response to wildfires across the country. These teams have been strategically assigned to highly complex wildfires such as, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Dahl and Ash Creek fires in Montana, the Seeley and Fontenelle Fires in Wyoming, and others.
To further address the severity of current wildland fire activity across the western states, Secretary Salazar and Secretary Vilsack have directed federal land managers to take additional measures to help reduce the risks of new wildfires, ensure the highest possible level of coordination among federal land management agencies, and continue to prioritize safety for firefighters and communities. Additional measures include prohibiting new prescribed fires in geographic areas where Preparedness Level is at 4 or 5 – which currently includes the Rocky Mountain Area, Eastern Great Basin Area, and Southwest Area – and requiring regional or state level approval to initiate any new prescribed fire in all other geographic areas. These measures will remain in effect until the National Multi-Agency Coordinating (NMAC) group determines a national Preparedness Level 3 or below. On June 27th, NMAC raised the preparedness level to 4, on a scale of 1-5.
As some areas of the country experience more favorable weather conditions and wildfires are contained, emergency stabilization efforts have begun. Damages resulting from wildland fires are addressed through four activities:
- Wildfire Suppression Activity Damage Repair: These actions are usually implemented immediately after containment of the wildfire by the Incident Management Organization.
- Emergency Stabilization: Emergency stabilization actions must be taken within one year following containment of a wildland.
- Rehabilitation: Efforts taken within three years of containment of a wildland fire to repair or improve wildfire-damaged lands unlikely to recover naturally.
- Restoration: Continuing the rehabilitation beyond the initial three years or the repair or replacement of major facilities damaged by the wildfire.
In addition, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, in partnerships with states and local agencies, have developed a cohesive strategy to respond to the increase in wildfires in recent years by focusing on:
- Restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes. Through forest and rangeland restoration activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns, officials can make forests and rangelands healthier and less susceptible to catastrophic fire.
- Creating fire-adapted communities. The Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and their partners are working with communities to reduce fire hazards around houses to make them more resistant to wildfire threats.
- Responding to Wildfires. This element considers the full spectrum of fire management activities and recognizes the differences in missions among local, state, tribal and Federal agencies.
On July 10, FEMA announced, based on consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, that residents in Colorado affected by flooding as a result of the uncontained wildfire in Waldo Canyon in the Pike National Forest and the contained wildfire in High Park in the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest could be eligible for an exception from the 30-day waiting period usually required for flood insurance coverage.
The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, signed into law Friday by President Obama, increases access to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for some residents impacted by flooding on federal land resulting from wildfires. The new law exempts these residents from a 30-day waiting period for flood insurance coverage to become effective. Eligibility for the exception is determined on a case-by-case basis and residents in these areas are encouraged to explore this option.
There is increased risk of flash flooding in burn areas as a result of fires, and with the traditional summer rain season beginning, it's important communities remain aware of this potential hazard. Flash floods can occur very rapidly, without warning or even any visible signs of rain, making it important to follow the direction of state and local officials.
To learn about flood risks in your area and for information on flood insurance, contact your insurance agent, and visit www.floodsmart.gov. For more information on flood preparedness tips and ways you can protect your family before, during and after a flood visit www.ready.gov/floods.
On average, the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior bureaus respond to about 16,500 wildfires per year that occur on land under their jurisdiction and assist state and local agencies in responding to a significant number of the approximately 60,000 wildfires per year that occur on land under their jurisdiction. Federal firefighters, aircraft, and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the nation. Firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial response capabilities. In addition, federal agencies are conducting accelerated restoration activities nationwide aimed at healthier forests and reduced fire risks in the years to come.
Federal land managers are also helping communities prepare for wildfire. Federal partnerships with state, tribal and local agencies strengthen preparedness programs, such as Firewise http://www.firewise.org/and Ready Set Go! http://www.iafc.org/readySetGo that helps families and communities prepare for and survive wildfire. You can also visit FEMA's Ready.gov http://www.ready.gov, to learn more about steps you and your family can take now to be prepared for an emergency.