Funding for the future

Recently, two documents emerged from the federal government that make for an interesting comparison and provide a glimpse into the future of how wildland firefighting will be funded.
The first document is from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is titled “Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Justification”. It is a large document at 325 pages and as the title implies, it is written justification for spending within the agency from building maintenance to acquisition of aircraft and everything in between.
Intended readership is for lawmakers whose job is to approve spending and of course the American public who vote those lawmakers into office. The second document is titled “The President’s Proposed Fiscal Year 2018 Wildland Fire Budget”.
It is a much smaller document at just a few pages and contains very little text and a whole lots of numbers. This budget was passed by the House of Representatives in September 2017 but at this writing in mid-November the Senate has yet to take any action.
The average layman could be confused by either document until it is explained how funding for wildfire management actually happens. There are two budgets involved. One is with the USDA which administers the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the other is with the Department of Interior (DOI) which administers the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and several other agencies. For instance, the USFS oversees the large and very large air tanker program along with Type One helicopters.
The BLM manages the Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) and Type Two and Three helicopters. Both agencies operate their own smoke jumper and and aerial supervision programs. There has been talk for years of combining the two budgets, which would do away with a tremendous amount of duplication. For example, document number one from above is intended for the USDA only, while the DOI has to produce their own parallel document. The President’s budget proposal includes both of these agencies.
As reflected from both documents, the overall bottom line of the budget remains pretty flat or unchanged from FY 2017. However, under the surface there are some big changes coming. There will be a 5.7% reduction in wildland fire staffing. This will come on the administrative end while boots on the ground at the fire line numbers will remain the same.
This trend is evident in the field like in Montana where they abandoned their satellite SEAT reload base program for a lack of personnel to staff the bases. All funding for research and study of wildfire has been cut from the budget for FY 2018. This doesn’t mean these programs will end, but the funding will have to come from another source. This seems to be an effort to do away with some of the duplicate spending.
Funding for wildfire preparation and suppression has been increased by 24% and 31%, respectively. This is a big difference as these two programs were already the largest in the budget. It might be noted that funds for all Exclusive Use contracts are derived from preparedness, while those for On Call contracts come out of suppression funding. There seems to either be an effort to increase the size of the programs or to correct cost overruns that have occurred in past years. It could be a combination of the two as Exclusive Use large air tanker contracts are set to increase from sixteen to twenty percent for FY 2018, while in FY 2017 cost overruns began occurring by early mid-season.
One fact buried in the documents is the end of the contract for Aero Flights’ two Canadair CL-415 Super Scoopers. This comes as a surprise because these effective tools could make a big difference when the right conditions existed. Evidently, USFS management decided they were not cost effective. They are a very expensive piece of equipment with elevated operating costs and the same mission could be accomplished with the more abundant Fire Boss at a much less cost. All other aviation asset numbers will remain the same with the exception of Exclusive Use SEATs, which will drop to thirty-two from a total of thirty-four in FY 2017.
The USFS contracts for large air tankers are very complicated and the documents that are made available to the public are heavily redacted leaving key elements unavailable. One questionable clause in the Next Generation contract limits retardant tank size to between three thousand and five thousand gallons. Somehow, they worked around this requirement to allow Tanker Ten to operate their DC-10s that have eleven thousand plus gallon tanks. The DC-10s have become very popular as you often see all three of them working at the same time. Global Supertanker recently filed a protest against this requirement to allow their Boeing B747-400 with its nineteen thousand plus gallon tank to work under a federal contract in the upcoming season.
The General Accounting Office has ruled in favor of Global Supertanker while questioning why such a requirement is even in place. This opens the door for the Supertanker as well as any other Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) that may be coming down the pipes.
Each year the amount of money spent fighting wildfires in the United States grows and each year the allocated budget struggles to keep up. The figures in the President’s budget are only for federal efforts and do not include the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by states and other local agencies. In the USFS Justification Document, they make the case that in the future they will make an effort to recoup more funds from states or private properties when federal assets are used for suppression. Inflation is partially to blame for budget increases, but aviation resources are by far the largest piece of the pie in prevention and suppression efforts.
FY 2018 will be the first year the entire fleet will operate on jet fuel. It is really amazing at what gets accomplished each year on available funds. When one compares the military budget to the Wildland fire budget, it is only a drop in the bucket. Wildland firefighting is a real war, too.

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