Alaska state forester testifies before Senate panel on wildland fire management

Yesterday (June 13) Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In his oral and written testimony (linked below), Maisch relayed the following statistics and key points:

State contributions to wildland fire prevention, mitigation, and suppression

State forestry agencies contribute tremendously in resources and personnel to wildland fire suppression efforts nationwide. Collectively, states spent $1.9 billion on wildfire suppression, prevention, and mitigation in 2018, with $1.4 billion spent on suppression alone. The federal government spent an additional $3.1 billion to suppress wildfires in 2018. Also in 2018:

  • 8,080 state personnel (including overhead and crews) were mobilized through the National Interagency Coordination Center, and of those state personnel, 6,026, or nearly 75%, were mobilized to federal wildfires.
  • More than 58,083 wildland fires burned nearly 8.8 million acres, and state and local agencies responded to the majority (78% of them) across all jurisdictions.
  • State forestry agencies helped train over 119,000 firefighters with financial support from the USDA Forest Service’s State Fire Assistance (SFA) and Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) programs.
State contributions to Communities at Risk

A community is considered at high risk from wildland fire, and categorized as a “Community at Risk,” when it falls within the wildland/urban interface (WUI). To be considered at reduced risk, Communities at Risk can become recognized as a Firewise community, enact a mitigation or fire prevention ordinance, and/or reduce hazardous fuel loads identified as high-priority in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). In 2018:

  • State forestry agencies, in cooperation with their counterparts, designated 70,399 municipalities as Communities at Risk.
  • Of those communities, 24.9% were deemed at reduced risk and 21.5% gained additional capacity to suppress wildfires with the help of state forestry agencies and federal assistance provided through SFA and VFA.
SFA and VFA: Programs that work

Your state forestry agency works to protect you, your family, and your forestland from wildfire. They do it with 93,656 wildland firefighters, 91,940​ engines, and 620 aircraft and helicopters. Federal dollars provided to states through the SFA and VFA programs help state foresters meet their huge wildfire protection responsibilities.

Managing wildfire is difficult and complex. Swift and effective first response provided by state and local firefighters is paramount to reducing fatalities, injuries, and property damages. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the SFA and VFA programs helped train 119,078 firefighters​ (97,210 state and 21,868 local) and provide them with $17 million worth of new or upgraded firefighting equipment.

Investments in state and local wildland firefighters make a difference. These men and women are the first to arrive at wildfires (regardless of who owns the land) nearly 80 percent of the time, and when properly equipped, can suppress them more efficiently and safely.

SFA and VFA also helped states reduce the amount of dead and degraded trees that fuel wildfires during FY 2018. SFA provided over $28 million in funding for hazardous fuels treatments, directly benefiting 1,065 communities in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The program also provided roughly $3.7 million in assistance to conduct 3,882 community risk assessments and complete 2,873​ fire management planning projects. The VFA program helped provide mitigation assistance to an additional 13,959 communities and helped to establish or expand 48 volunteer fire departments.

State needs not being met by the federal government

More coordination and planning between federal and state agencies is needed to promote cross-boundary fire management. All too often, wildfires that begin on federal land cross over onto state lands. Wildfire can benefit fire-dependent ecosystems and landscapes, and in some cases, monitoring a wildfire (as opposed to immediately suppressing it) is the best course of action in instances where communities or critical infrastructure are not at risk.

In these cases, communication from federal managers with state agencies to establish contingency plans would help to improve response efforts in the event a fire leaves federally managed lands. When state or private lands are affected, most state agencies have a statutory obligation to engage in fire suppression. In these circumstances, it is critical that a cost-share agreement between the federal agency and the state has already been negotiated.

For instance, the state of Alaska has a fire plan that identifies fire protection levels, when initial attack should occur, and which agency will be financially responsible for a “managed fire.” If an agency decides to let a wildfire burn, that agency is financially responsible for the entire cost of the incident, even if it leaves agency lands. This upfront agreement accomplishes several things: (1) it provides certainty to state and local suppression agencies on the cost of managed fire and (2) encourages agency administrators to aggressively evaluate the timing, location, and risk profile of a managed fire from its partners’ perspectives. This shared decision making is a key aspect of our partnership to addressing wildland fire and the challenges it presents.

Congress needs to enact federal legislation to address liability concerns for Forest Fire Compact resource exchanges. Current federal and state legislation does not provide emergency response personnel from the states with the same liability protections that they receive within their forest fire compact jurisdictions. Without appropriate liability protections, moving resources like tankers, aircraft, and firefighters between compacts to suppress wildfires is limited. In fact, some states have determined that they cannot mobilize resources across compact boundaries due to these liability issues.

For example, the two southern forest fire compacts have been reluctant to accept resources from the Northeast and Northwest Forest Fire Compacts because these compacts don’t have inter-compact liability protection language in their statutes. The Northwest Compact does not accept or export any resources on a compact-to-compact basis for the same reason. As a result, half of states (and several Canadian provinces) can’t share resources even in times of extreme emergency.

NASF and the Alliance for Forest Fire Compacts are urging Congress to enact national legislation to address this liability issue for resource exchanges between forest fire compacts. This legislation should allow states to opt-in to using the federal language and should not require them to change local state statutes. The provinces would use their provincial process to accept the terms as well.

Have questions? Contact NASF Policy Director Robyn Whitney at rwhitney@stateforesters.org.


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