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

30 Eastern Montana farmers and ranchers to get $2.5 million to offset damage from wildfire

from the Helena Independent Record:

About 30 Montana farmers and ranchers whose property was destroyed by wildfires will get $2.5 million in federal assistance to help rebuild.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a press release Friday announcing the money, which is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

“After our relentless persistence, Montana farmers will begin to see some relief from what has been a historically difficult summer,” Tester said in the release. “This is the first wave of meaningful resources that will help producers rebuild after horrific devastation. I will keep rattling cages in Washington to ensure every farmer gets what they need to rebuild.”

Montana’s congressional delegation, which also includes Republicans U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, all called for federal assitance to help offset the impact of the more than 1 million acres that have burned statewide this year. Two fires, the Lodgepole Complex that burned about 50 miles northwest of Jordan, and the Lolo Peak fire, still burning about 10 miles outside Lolo, have been approved for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants that can match state spending up to 75 percent for approved firefighting costs.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, also announced Thursday he was seeking to fast-track additional money from FEMA.

The money Tester announced Friday can be used to assist with livestock grazing deferment, damaged fence and post removal, livestock fencing, water facility development, critical area plantings, and cover crops.

In July, Tester penned a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking the USDA to tap into disaster assistance initiatives. He also invited Republican President Donald Trump to tour Montana fires.

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.