Forest Service Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion

Secretary Perdue Renews Call for Congress to Fix “Fire Borrowing” Problem

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today announced that wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year have exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record.  Wildfires have ravaged states in the west, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies regions of the United States this summer.  As the Forest Service passed the $2 billion milestone, Perdue renewed his call for Congress to fix the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded.

“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more – which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” Perdue said.  “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.  It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on.  That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”

Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat.  Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, chewing up a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year.  The agency has had to borrow from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs.  Perdue said he would prefer that Congress treat major fires the same as other disasters and be covered by emergency funds so that prevention programs are not raided.

“We’ve got great people at the Forest Service and great procedures and processes in place,” Perdue said.  “We can have all of that – the best people, the best procedures, and the best processes – but if we don’t have a dependable funding source in place, then we’ll never get ahead of the curve on fighting fires.”

This fiscal year, Congress appropriated additional funding above the ten-year average – almost $1.6 billion total – to support Forest Service firefighting efforts, but even that amount has not been enough.  With three weeks left in the fiscal year, the Forest Service has spent all of the money Congress appropriated for fire suppression, which means the agency has borrowed from other programs within its budget to meet this year’s actual fire suppression costs.

Continuous fire activity and the extended length of the fire season is driving costs. At the peak of Western fire season, there were three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average, and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fires.  More than 27,000 people supported firefighting activities during peak Western fire season.  The Forest Service has been at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, for 35 days as of September 14, 2017.  Approximately 2.2 million acres of National Forest system lands have burned in that time.

“We are breaking records in terms of dollars spent, acres of National Forest land burned, and the increased duration of fires.” said Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke.  “Our firefighters are brave men and women, who risk their own lives to protect life and property.  We must give them every opportunity to do their jobs effectively through better management of the forests in the first place.”

Both Perdue and Tooke have traveled recently to areas of the country besieged by wildfires.  Secretary Perdue visited Montana with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke near the end of August, receiving an assessment from Forest Service personnel on the ground at the Lolo Peak Fire.  Chief Tooke was in Oregon earlier in September, when he visited firefighters, communities, and local and state decision-makers.  Perdue said he wants to embrace Good Neighbor Authority, which permits contracting with states to perform watershed restoration and forest management services in National Forests.

“We are committed to working together, with federal, state, and local officials, to be good stewards of our forests,” Perdue said.  “We want to make Good Neighbor Authority more than just a slogan.  We want to make it work for our forests, so that they work for the taxpayers of America.”

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains world-renowned forestry research and wildland fire management organizations. National forests and grasslands contribute more than $30 billion to the American economy annually and support nearly 360,000 jobs. These lands also provide 30 percent of the nation’s surface drinking water to cities and rural communities; approximately 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.

Source: USDA

After the flames: How fire affects soil nutrients

Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, rangeland and cropland have sadly gone up in smoke this summer in Montana. In addition to the devastating effect on personal property and direct loss of crops and livestock, fire can affect soil properties and soil nutrients. The impact is highly dependent on the fire intensity/duration and the proportion of plant material that is burned. Timber and shrubs will burn hotter and longer with greater impact on soil than range- or crop land. Fast moving grass fires have minimal impact on soil nutrients and soil health compared to slow moving, intense fires in moderate to heavy fuels.

In general, fires reduce the pool of nutrients stored in organic matter, release a flush of plant available nutrients in the short term, and redistribute nutrients through the soil profile. The availability of nutrients, especially nitrogen, is increased after low intensity fires, yet, a portion of nitrogen and sulfur is lost to the air. Although these losses are not trivial and are similar to removal by harvest and losses to wind erosion, they are small compared to the average pool of nutrients in the top six-inches of soil.

Nitrogen can additionally be lost through nitrate leaching, as the burned plant matter creates a large pool of nitrate and few active plant roots are left to take up either the nitrate or soil water. This can have long term impact on the productivity of forest and rangeland ecosystems, but can be minimized or remediated on croplands. The other nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc and manganese are more stable and not lost directly through combustion, but rather through blowing ash, and post-fire soil erosion.

Cropland fires rarely burn hot enough to affect soil organic matter. The bigger concern is loss of surface plant residue, which is very important to reduce wind erosion, and protect against the physical sealing impact of raindrops. Ash particles also contribute to reduced water infiltration as they plug soil pores. All these factors increase the risk of water runoff and soil erosion.

Intense forest and shrubland fires can burn soil organic matter, reducing the pool of nutrients in the soil, soil aeration and water infiltration/retention, and the soil’s ability to hold nutrients coming from ash or fertilizer.

In addition, forest and shrubland fires can create a water repellent layer within the top 2 inches of soil that comes from compounds in the burnt litter, coating soil aggregates or minerals. The depth and thickness of this layer can vary greatly, and it can affect infiltration for several months to years. This layer should not form on grassland or stubble fires.

Fire kills bacteria and fungi at the soil surface but microbes rapidly recolonize from deeper soil layers, except in severe fires where the soil is sterilized several inches deep. Microbial activity can actually increase with the flush of nutrients available after a fire. However, new input of plant material is important to sustain their populations.

Post-fire management includes soil testing to determine nutrient availability, and establishing ground cover where possible. Test for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to calculate fertilizer needs. Because drought preceded fire, it’s likely that many fields have nitrogen that wasn’t used this summer, so less might be needed next spring. When soil sampling burned fields, be sure to select representative sites, avoid areas where there may have been a windrow, bale, or other high accumulation of straw or residue. Spreading manure can be very beneficial post-fire but this is rarely available or reasonable at large scales.

The MSU Soil Fertility Extension website http://landresources.montana.edu/soilfertility/ has several publications and presentations on soil testing and calculating fertilizer rates. Contact Clain Jones at clainj@montana.edu or 406-994- 6076 if you have any questions.

Montana Fire Relief: Updated Ways to Help

The Lodgepole Complex Fire is now at 93% containment.

Firefighters will continue fire repairs and mop-up. Command of the fire has been turned over to a local Type 3 organization.

Sixteen homes have been destroyed as well as an unspecified but significant amount of fencing and haystacks. Numerous secondary structures have also been destroyed. McCone Electric has lost over 120 power poles. An additional 16 structures not included above were identified via satellite imagery as destroyed but type of use has not yet been determined.

There are currently 26 active fires in the state of Montana. The Montana Stockgrowers Foundation is raising money to aid fire relief efforts, if you are interested in donating please mail your donation to 420 N California St Helena, MT 59601. Listed below are alternative ways to help those affected by the Lodgepole Complex Fire.

If you have any questions, please contact the MSGA Office at 406-442-3420.

 

Thank you to Northern Ag Network for continuing to update their list of ways to help. You can find a comprehensive list on their website.

Agriculture Fire & Drought Assistance Hotline

As drought conditions worsen and fires burn throughout the state, the Montana Department of Agriculture has launched the Agriculture Fire and Drought Assistance Hotline. The hotline will serve as a tool to help connect those affected to available resources, programs and donations, as well as to provide information on how others can help. Questions related to hay/feed donations, livestock, fencing, and transportation can be directed to the hotline. The hotline number is 1-844-515-1571 and will be staffed 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday.

“Montana’s agriculture industry has been disproportionately impacted by disasters this year, both drought and fire,” said MDA Director Ben Thomas. “There’s currently a major need for resources and there’s been an overwhelming swell of support from folks across the state and throughout the country. We saw a need to get information out about resources available and ways to help connect people to those resources.”

Montana Agriculture Fire & Drought Assistance Hotline
1-844-515-1571
Monday-Friday, 8 am–5 pm

The hotline is not an emergency number, if you are in an emergency please call 911.

Visit www.agr.mt.gov/Fire-Drought-Assistance-2017 for more information.

The Montana Department of Agriculture’s mission is to protect producers and consumers, and to enhance and develop agriculture and allied industries.  For more information on the Montana Department of Agriculture, visit agr.mt.gov.

Flooding Rains cause issues in Montana hay

Emily Glunk Montana State Forage ExtensionProvided by Emily Glunk, PhD, Forage Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor, Montana State

After the large amounts of rain received throughout Montana in recent days, we have been receiving reports of heating and molding of hay bales stacked and stored outside. Rain can be detrimental at several points of the haying process, including after storage. It will increase the amount of wasted hay, due to molding and quality issues, as well as pose a safety hazard due to fire and health risks.

Problems following heating and water damage of hay include decreased quality, increased waste, and molding. Generally, the larger and more dense the bale of hay, the greater chance for heating and storage losses. Large round bales and large square bales are more susceptible than small square bales to losses and spontaneous combustion.

Rained on hay can cause increases in the internal temperature of the bale, which can then lead to spontaneous combustion. An Oregon report stated that the bottom bales of large stacks of hay stored outside had soaked up a large amount of moisture from the ground after a heavy rain, causing heating and internal combustion in the hay stack.

Spontaneous hay fires usually occur within six weeks of baling, however when external moisture such as heavy rain is added, issues can arise outside of that timeframe. Increases in bale moisture increase microbial activity, with heat as a by-product. It is typical to see temperatures peaking 3 to 7 days post-rainfall, but should return to normal by 60 days. This will depend on factors such as relative humidity, bale density, and amount of rainfall received. The longer it takes for the bale temperature to return to normal the more likely for a fire or significant damage will occur to the hay.

When available, a bale thermometer will be the most accurate estimate of internal bale temperature. Ensure that the thermometer can read up to 200⁰ F and is long enough to reach the middle of the bale. If a thermometer is not available, an easy way to test the temperature of your bale is to stick a crowbar or a metal rod into the middle of the bale and keep it there for approximately 10 minutes. When the crowbar is removed, it should cool to the touch. If it is warm to the touch, then it is an indication of internal heating and should be taken care of immediately. If the crowbar is too hot to touch, this indicates that spontaneous combustion could be imminent. All stacked bales should be spread out, to allow for as much air movement through and around the bale as possible. (See Table below)

Round Bale Fire Temps

Beyond possible spontaneous combustion, there are other quality losses associated with rained-on hay, especially hay that continues to sit in water. When hay begins to heat due to additional moisture, some of the proteins become unavailable for digestion due to binding with fiber, and is known as acid detergent insoluble nitrogen (ADIN). Unfortunately, this will still show up as crude protein on a standard lab test, and so may not exactly represent the amount of protein available to the animal.

You can ask for an analysis to include ADIN, which depending on the lab may also be referred to as acid detergent fiber nitrogen (ADF-N) or acid detergent fiber protein (ADF-P), usually at an additional charge. If the ADIN is <10%, then you do not need to adjust the crude protein (CP) levels. If the ADIN is >10%, then you should subtract 10% from the ADIN value to determine available CP. As an example, your analysis comes back with ADIN= 27% and CP=12%. To determine the available CP:

  • 27 (% ADIN) – 10 = 17% ADIN
  • 17 (calculated % ADIN from above) * 12% (CP) * 100 (conversion factor) = 2.
  • Subtract this from the total CP, so 12% (CP) – 2 (calculated above) = 10% CP available.

Perhaps a more well-known effect of rained-on hay is molding. In a standing crop of forage, the plant surfaces are covered with bacteria to help protect the plant against external assaults such as fungal infections, yeast, and potentially visible light. Once cut, the forage moisture begins to decrease, altering the bacterial populations and potentially increasing fungal and yeast populations. In normal moisture hay (<15% moisture), fungi will not grow well and there are usually limited mold issues. However, when the bale moisture is increased, this opens the opportunity for fungal and mold growth.

Hay left in field after an intense rainstorm in Phillips County. Photo courtesy of Marko Manoukian.

Hay left in field after an intense rainstorm in Phillips County. Photo courtesy of Marko Manoukian.

Cereal hays are especially prone to molding issues. At harvest, the stems of the plant are sufficiently dry, however the moisture in the grains is still above desirable levels. The grain loses moisture at lower rates than the rest of the plant, and so at baling are often above 15% moisture. Mold is commonly seen in these areas first, which then can spread to the rest of the bale.

Mold, and especially the mycotoxins that some molds produce, can be harmful to animals and humans alike. Horses are the most susceptible, with ingestion of moldy hay potentially resulting in respiratory and digestive issues. Ruminants aren’t as sensitive to moldy hay, but can have experience negative effects such as abortions or aspergillosis. Additionally, there is a condition known as “farmer’s lung” that can occur in humans due to fungus growing in lung tissue after fungal spores have been inhaled.

Moldy hay can be fed to ruminants, however it does not come without risks. If the hay is dusty from mold spores, then do not feed it to sensitive animals, and ensure that where you are feeding it is properly ventilated. Make sure to dilute the moldy forage by feeding with “clean” hay, or hay that is not moldy. Mold does decrease the palatability of the forage, causing animals to avoid it, but if mixed in with other hay it will generally be accepted. However, ensure to remove any rejected forage that animals will not consume, and provide new hay at the next feeding.

If you are experiencing moldy hay, it is advised to have it tested. Laboratories such as Midwest Laboratories (Omaha, NE) and Dairyland Laboratories, Inc. (Arcadia, WI) have tests that can check for mold and mycotoxin levels in your hay.

If you have any further questions, please contact Emily Glunk, Forage Extension Specialist, at emily.glunk@montana.edu or 406-994-5688.

Fire Effects in the Northern Great Plains

Heat Duration In MinutesInformation provided by Dr. Mark Petersen of the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City.

Fire and grazing are natural and important processes in maintaining grasslands in the Great Plains and elsewhere.  Active fire suppression has in fact been recognized as a key disruptive force in rangeland ecosystem integrity throughout the world.  Fire’s ecological effects are numerous and complex.  Fire can manipulate nutrient dynamics, soils, vegetation, and animals.

Primary factors affecting community response are timing, frequency, and intensity of fire relative to the biology of organisms examined.  Fire effects on total plant productivity in the northern Great Plains are neutral to positive.  Native perennial grass productivity generally increases following fire.  Neutral responses in total productivity occur when increases in native perennial grasses are offset by reductions in annual grasses and forbs, which are predominantly non-native and non-preferred species.  Fire causes an immediate reduction of standing dead material and litter.  The combustion of standing dead material is a loss of forage in the near term.  The reduction in litter can alter light and moisture relations at the soil surface, promoting increased productivity and discouraging establishment of non-native species.  Reduction of standing dead material and litter as well as improved forage quality of new growth also attract grazers to burned sites.

Fire Season Effect on Brome Density
Response to fire can be species-specific, allowing targeted control of native weeds, such as purple threeawn, pricklypear cactus and juniper.  Invasive non-native weeds, such as annual bromes are also susceptible to selective control with fire and fire can kill seeds of some noxious invasive species.

Fire has even been shown to selectively control pest grasshopper species.   As an evolutionary process, fire cannot be substituted with any other management option.

Fire Effects on Weed Seed EmergenceThe dominant perennial grasses in the northern Great Plains are resistant to fire.  Western wheatgrass, threadleaf sedge, needle-and-thread, and blue grama were exposed to fires with a wide range of fuel loads (up to 8020 lb/ac) and hot, dry weather to determine the probability of fire-induced mortality.  No western wheatgrass or threadleaf sedge died.  To reach a 0.5 probability of mortality for needle-and-thread and blue grama, surface temperatures  exceeding lethal limits had to last 10.5 and 7.5 minutes, which required more than 7100 lb/ac of fuel.  Most combustion in grassland fuels is completed in 30 seconds to 2.5 minutes and fuel loads in the northern Great Plains are typically 600-2700 lb/ac.

Species such as Japanese brome can be reduced by fire through direct mortality of exposed plants and seeds, and indirect reduction through alterations in the microenvironment that reduce successful germination and establishment.  Established perennial weeds with protected buds, such as leafy spurge, are not harmed by fire, but seeds near the soil surface, in the litter, or in the canopy can be quite vulnerable to fire-induced mortality.

Heat Effects on EggsAs with plant species, animals are directly and indirectly affected by fire.  For example, ticks and grasshoppers that are in the plant litter or canopy  experience direct mortality from fire.

Additionally, we have shown some of the primary pest grasshopper species can be selectively controlled with fire.  Migratory grasshoppers show little egg mortality because they lay eggs deeply in the soil, whereas white-whiskered grasshoppers lay their eggs near the soil surface and commonly show 86% mortality.

Fire Ecology References available upon request. Email ryan@mtbeef.org.