Just as the record breaking 2017 fire season came to a close, fiscal year 2018 began. Although the new fiscal year began on October 1st, Congress was unable to agree on a budget. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress and the President signed and passed a continuing resolution (CR) on September 8th to allow funding for federal agencies to remain at similar levels to what was enacted for fiscal year 2017. While operations continue as normal, agencies have been instructed not to start new projects under the newly minted CR. As US lawmakers mull over the proposed 2018 budget, a planned spending reduction in firefighting efforts is drawing criticism from both sides of the isle.
GOVERNMENT DISAGREEMENTS OVER PROPOSED FY 2018 FIRE BUDGET
Despite the fact that the President’s proposed budget would cut the US Forest Service’s spending by $970 million, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell’s supports the proposal. Democratic and Republican senators both criticised Tidwell, citing one of the worst fire seasons on record, with Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Oregon and Washington all declaring a state of emergency and suffering significant loss of property and life. Facing such criticism, Chief Tom Tidwell acknowledged that President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget plan proposes very difficult reductions in some very important programs, but said that it will let the Forest Service focus on the “highest-priority” work while supporting state fire suppression activities. Understandably, the notion of cutting the budget of a federal agency so integral to saving both property and life following record-setting natural disasters seems incredulous. However, as most debates in Congress go, it’s important to read through the rhetoric and understand how these proposed reductions affect those in the firefighting community.
COSTS OF FIREFIGHTING EFFORTS ARE STEADILY INCREASING OVER TIME
One thing is clear, the cost of fighting fires in the United States has continually increased year over year and shows no sign of decreasing under current suppression methodologies. A report by the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, estimated that the service dedicated just 16 percent of its 1995 budget to firefighting. That grew to 52 percent of its budget in 2015 and is expected to rise to 67 percent by 2025. Tidwell contended that President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget recognizes the need for current and additional staff to provide the resources that are necessary for the service to maintain the current success rate of suppressing 98 percent of fires during the initial attack phase. Source: “The rising cost of Wildfire operations.”, 2015. Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work: United States Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., United States.
EFFECTS OF BUDGET CUTS ON US FOREST SERVICE
Despite the call for the Forest Service to reduce overall staffing by 5.7%, wildland fire personnel in the Forest Service would remain the same. The current staffing model shows a total of around 10,000 personnel, including 67 Interagency Hotshot Crews, 7,940 other firefighters, 320 Smokejumpers, and 400 Fire Prevention Technicians. Total fire suppression efforts would be funded at the 10-year average.
EFFECTS OF REDUCED FIRE BUDGET ON DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR
As for the Department of Interior, however, the agency’s employees will not be spared. The 2018 budget request for the DOI’s discretionary Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $873.5 million. This is a decrease of $118.3 million, or 12 percent, from fiscal year 2017. It would mean a reduction in Full Time Equivalent employees (FTE) from 3,586 to 3,401, or 5 percent. Moreover, the DOI’s contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program, a program designed to fund scientific research on wildland fires, would be cut in half, totaling $3 million annually. The latter will have a direct impact on small scientific communities like those in Missoula, Montana. “In Missoula, you’re looking at significant cuts in Forest Service research spending,” said Andy Stahl of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “That includes the Joint Fire Science Research budget that gets zeroed out. The one place that’s not cut is inventory and monitoring counting trees. We will just stop studying them and just count.” Closer to the firefighting community, Roxanne Warneke-Preston whose late husband was a wildland firefighter killed in the line of duty in 2013 wrote: “I worry about the fate of so many others if the federal government cuts $118 million for fire suppression and firefighting, because this funding is vital to protect communities surrounded by wildland areas.” The proposed fiscal year 2018 budget aims to reduce costs while attempting to suppress increasing wildfires and recover from a record 2017 fire season. To meet these objectives there will need to be concessions made by both Republicans and Democrats to achieve this goal. In the firefighting community, this equates to having the staff, vehicles and equipment necessary to safely fight the stem of fires that grip the country in the long summer months. Let’s hope for our sake the two sides reach an amicable deal.
HOW YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT CAN CIRCUMVENT REDUCED BUDGETS FOR PURCHASING FIRE APPARATUSES
Although the reduced budget may create some limitations for agencies and fire departments, there are some workarounds. Boise Mobile Equipment, for example, a leading manufacturer of fire apparatuses located in Boise, Idaho, has existing fire apparatus contracts with the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the General Services Administration. The significance of these contracts is that fire departments and other agencies have the ability to “tag-on” to these contracts, giving them access to competitively low pricing and the ability to avoid long bidding processes when purchasing fire apparatuses. “Tagging-on” means to add your purchase order for a fire apparatus to an existing purchase order related to a pre-existing contract. If your department is interested in tagging-on to either of these contracts, contact BME today.