By Martin Kidston
Already this year, Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has flown 12 aircraft 1,050 hours fighting fires across the U.S., marking a stark increase from this time last year when the same fleet had logged just 540 hours.
With Sen. Jon Tester at his side on Friday, Neptune CEO Ron Hooper stated what most Western residents see anecdotally every summer. The fire seasons are growing longer, more severe and more costly to fight.
“The last month, we’ve had aircraft in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota and California,” Hooper said. “It’s been a very, very busy season for us this year.”
In response to the budgetary needs of the U.S. Forest Service and cash-strapped counties across the Western U.S., Tester is pushing a series of bills packaged under his new Western Wildfire Initiative.
The separate initiatives would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funding to communities to help them recover from a devastating wildfire, such as the Lolo Creek Complex Fires of 2013.
The effort would also allow seasonal firefighters to apply for permanent positions within the federal workforce, and it would establish a Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to help pay the cost of fighting catastrophic wildfires.
“We all know the seasons are getting longer and more intense with climate change,” said Tester, D-Montana. “The Forest Service right now uses over half its budget on fighting fires. By 2025, it’s expected to consume two-thirds of their budget.”
Directing such a large portion of its budget toward fighting wildfires has left the Forest Service in a pinch. Tester said the current practice diverts needed funding from trail maintenance, timber harvest, forest research and other activities.
To address the issue, Tester has already introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, though it remains held up in the Senate Budget Committee. The act would categorize wildfires as a natural disaster, allowing the Forest Service to access emergency funding to fight them while reserving its general budget for other needs.
“A wildfire is not any different in my opinion than a flood, a hurricane or a tornado,” Tester said. “They all threaten communities, and oftentimes they result from an act of nature, something we cannot control.”
Tester’s package of bills would also address the costly aftermath of a fire. As written, the Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act would provide FEMA funding to conduct hazard mitigation after a fire. The work would help pay for erosion control, fuel reduction, restoring burned land and efforts to prevent flooding.
The bill has already won the support of state and local government leaders, including Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who said Montana counties lack the financial resources to tackle the work on their own.
“FEMA’s programs and policies were created to help address disasters like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes,” Curtiss said. “Missoula County has used those programs and grants to address the messes after floods and to prevent floods in the future. But wildfire was not the focus of those programs and polices, even though wildfires in the West are the new natural disaster.”
Curtiss recalled the 2013 Lolo Creek Complex Fire, which flared on a ridge on a hot August day and burned several homes to their foundations in an afternoon blowup. The fire prompted widespread evacuations and eventually prompted a flash-flood warning.
“The fire did qualify for a fire management assistance grant, which helped address the cost of fighting the fire, but it couldn’t be used for mitigation work after the fire was out,” Curtiss said. “Restoration work is costly and time sensitive. This legislation will give counties more resources to address that aftermath and to reduce the damage of future fires.”
Tester’s Western Wildfire Initiative also includes legislation to keep seasonal firefighters on the job and give them a chance to apply for permanent vacant positions within federal government.
As things currently stand, he said, seasonal firefighters are cut off from career opportunities available to other employees. His Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act would remove barriers in the hiring system.
“This bill gets rid of the bureaucratic red tape and makes it easier for that seasonal employee to get a full-time job,” Tester said. “They have the skills and experience, and they should have the opportunity to land a full-time federal job.”
The measure, which was passed once already but botched upon implementation, has the support of Bob Beckley, a project leader who has worked for the Forest Service for 30 years. Beckley said seasonal firefighters are held to “1039 appointment” standards, meaning they can work for 1,039 hours before their season is forcefully ended.
“Not that long ago, if you had a 4-month-long fire season, that was a long fire season,” Beckley said. “Fire season is going on year-round now, and we need those (firefighters). This legislation allows those temporary employees to compete for merit positions within the agency. It’ll be easier to manage our workforce.”
Beckley believes the measure will also save the agency money.
“We put a lot of time and money into training these people,” he said. “Once we bring them up to that journeyman level, we can’t give them the opportunity to compete for other positions in-house, so they leave us and we start all over. It’s not a wise way of using taxpayer money or managing our workforce.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org