There’s nothing like having a deputy sheriff circle around your town with his flashers going announcing through his bull-horn that residents “are advised to prepare for a possible evacuation notice” to grab attention. And, there’s nothing like having three wildland fires going on in a single region to make the air thick with sage brush smoke, and to cause several ranches to make emergency roundups to remove cattle from harm’s way — if they can. If we thought that after the Long Draw Fire there was little left to burn, we were wrong; and, from August 6th to August 12th three more lightning related fires were classified as “ongoing incidents.”
Nevada agencies are now dealing with ten active “incidents” (fires) in the Central and Elko Districts alone. These range from relatively small fires (which have a nasty way of turning into complex or larger ones) and two large ones such as the Holloway Fire (Humboldt County) and the Bull Run Fire (Elko County.) [InciWeb]
The June 2012 fires in Colorado should have been as much a wake up call for Congressional leaders as our deputy sheriff in his patrol car with lights flashing and bull horn blaring [CBS] Evidently, they weren’t.
The Funding Fail
The House Appropriations Committee was pleased to note its funding for wildland fire suppression for FY 2013:
In total, the bill funds wildfire fighting and prevention programs at $3.2 billion, which is $6 million above last year’s level. This includes fully funding the 10-year average wildland fire suppression costs for both the DoI and the Forest Service. Total funding for Wildland Fire Management within both DoI and the Forest Service is $2.8 billion, and the total funding for the FLAME program – a reserve fund for fighting large scale fires – is $407 million.
While this sounds nice, the reality is less reassuring:
A study reported in 2009,
“…warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said. It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires. But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.
Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.” [RawStory]
In short, increases don’t solve the problem when the program budgets are already in the hole. We should go back to March 29, 2012 to review some basics:
“In a 228 to 191 vote, the House has passed the Ryan budget plan for FY 2013 which includes extending the pay freeze until 2015, reduces the size of the federal workforce, and increases federal employees’ pension contributions.
The cuts would save an estimated $368 billion over the next decade.
The budget provision is expected to fail in the Senate, but it is representative of the path lawmakers in the House plan to take, so presumably federal employees can expect to see more such proposals in the near future.” [FedSmith]
Who is included in this pay freeze until 2015? Firefighters on federal lands. Who is now required to pay more into federal pension plans — even though their wages aren’t being increased? Firefighters on federal lands.
Now, who voted to freeze the wages of firefighters on federal lands until 2015, and to underfund federal wildland firefighting resources and programs? Every single Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives — including Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) and Representative Joe Heck (R-NV3). [Roll Call 151]
The Perils of Privatization
Contrary to popular belief, the National Forest Service doesn’t own air tankers; it contracts with private firms for the operation and maintenance of our aging air tanker fleet. S. 3621 shepherded through the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid, in June 2012, would:
“… allow the Forest Service to quickly complete the contracting process for acquiring at least seven new large air tankers to fight wildfires during the 2012 and 2013 fire seasons.
The Forest Service is contending with an aging fleet of aircraft. The agency is working with planes that were designed for combat in the Korean War. Finding parts for tankers a half-century old is difficult, leading them to be grounded for long periods of times when repairs are needed.
The Forest Service has said it needs between 18 and 28 new air tankers for optimal response to emergency response to wildfires. Today, however, there are only nine Forest Service tankers deemed airworthy to fight fires during what is expected to be a terrible fire season. If we act promptly, Congress has the opportunity to help the Forest Service put more tankers into service this year.
To partially satisfy the need for new air tankers, the Forest Service has requested that Congress waive a 30-day notification requirement before it awards contracts for four large air tankers. S. 3621 would waive this requirement, and allow the Forest Service to deploy these urgently needed air tankers.” [Reid]
The bill made it through Congress in record time — record time, at least for the 112th Congress — [floor proceedings] and was signed into law on June 13th. [DenverCBS] The tanker bill, sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), may not have broken the deadlock as of August 2012 after the Forest Service’s contracts for tankers were approved:
“Two other firefighting aviation companies protested the contract in late June. The federal General Accountability Office allows 100 days to review and decide the case. That means the contract could be delayed until early October.
The protesting companies, 10 Tanker of Victorville, Calif., and Coulson Aviation of Port Alberni, British Columbia, were unsuccessful contenders for the next-generation contract.” [BillingsGz]
Contrary to some right-wing complaints about the Obama Administration’s “failure” to request more resources for air tankers, an interesting protest in the face of the Ryan Budget cuts, the hold up at the moment is a conflict involving private firms which were not awarded the contracts.
There are firefighters, who just received federal health benefits thanks to the action of the Administration (certainly not the Congress), camped out at the local rodeo grounds, successfully fighting several wild land fires, and not looking at any pay increases until 2015. Somewhere, there might be some member of the Top 0.1% saying — “Good help is just so hard to find these days.”