Service crew

Senators ask Forest Service chief about firefighter pay, fuel handling and firefighting planes

Updated 9:04 a.m. EDT June 10, 2022

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 9, 2022

In Washington today, senators questioned the head of the United States Forest Service, Randy Moore, on a number of issues during a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Some of the key topics included firefighter pay, fuel salaries, prescribed fire, prescribed fire escapees, hiring and retention, number of firefighters in the agency, and firefighting aircraft. We will discuss some of them here, in the order of their appearance at the hearing. Archived video of the entire hearing is available on the Committee’s website. Below are clips created by the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

48:29 – Senator Ron Wyden (OR) says, “The shortage of permanent wildfire-fighting positions, if left unaddressed, is set to become a four-alarm-clock… What is the answer? more important? Better salaries, decent perks for these firefighters so they can pay their rent and run errands. This is not the case today according to the firefighters who speak to me.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, during the hearing on June 9, 2022

Chief Moore replied, “You know, Senator, if I had the ability to set my firefighters’ salaries, I certainly would. Now all I have to do is try to implement the direction given by the legislation… We will use all the tools of this legislation to pay our firefighters more, because they really deserve it. It’s dirty, unpleasant, hard work and they deserve better pay, they deserve better benefits, they deserve better mental and physical health care.

48:29 – Senator Wyden secured a commitment from the leader to respond within two weeks to the issues he listed in a Letter of June 7, 2022 sent to the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture on how Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation (BIL) funds are allocated and distributed to the field, strategy for filling vacancies, how to retain employees , progress in creating the new set of wildland firefighter jobs, and how to reduce the number of fires from unfulfilled orders for fire crews and engines.

1:02:09 – Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM) asked about the escaped prescribed fires that led to the current Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire.

1:15:50 – Senator Angus King (ME) launched an impassioned plea to implement the salary increases that were signed into law by President Biden eight months ago as part of the BIL.

“Eisenhower took over Europe in 11 months,” said Senator King. “You can’t get a raise in seven months? Go on!”

Sen. John Barrasso (WY) also called for a pay rise.

1:18:45 – Senator Cortez Masto asked what might be a temporary salary increase required by the legislation that increase the salary of wildland firefighters by $20,000, or 50% of their base salary, whichever is less. Chief Moore said that would happen in “a few weeks”, and later said, “by the end of this month… That’s the goal. This is what we are aiming for. Senator Masto was persistent, seeking facts and clarifications, asking follow-up questions and getting details.

1:21:45 – Chief Moore discussed fuel treatments and emphasized that treated areas must be large in order to effectively slow the spread of a very large fire. In terms of accomplishing this, he said: “…Based on the fires we have right now, we don’t have enough firefighters to really be successful in stopping the fires the way they are behaving because they are behave catastrophically.

1:27:10 – Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM) questioned the trend of shutting down human-occupied fire watchtowers and replacing them with technology. The chef did not take the bait or respond directly.

1:55:50 – Senator Maria Cantwell threw to Chief Moore what could have been a softball question. “Where are we with our [firefighting] air capability,” she said. “We’ve had this discussion before with the Forest Service wanting them to have more resources ready. I think the Forest Service at the time didn’t want to be in the fleet management business and said we’d rather have contracts. How do you see those air resources now that we know we have so many more fire starts… We want to know we have that early phase retardant or water… How does the Forest Service deal with that matters given the enormous increase in outbreaks of fire? »

Chief Moore replied: ‘You may know by now that we have access to about 27 VLATS, very large air tankers, as well as the large air tankers and so far we don’t need additional tankers in this particular at this particular time. So do we – I don’t know why these decisions have been made in the past on planes, but we know they are expensive to maintain if the Forest Service owned them. But you know there are pros and cons to this, so I won’t really go into detail, I don’t know what happened many years ago. With regard to our aircraft, we certainly need aircraft to help us put out fires. We also know that there are limitations with aircraft because aircraft do not put out fires. It is in the boots on the ground that the fires are truly extinguished.

His predecessor in April 2021 squandered a softball opportunity to tell the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies that the Forest Service needed more funding in two very important areas insufficiently budgeted, fuel processing and aerial firefighting. Today, Chief Moore squandered a similar opportunity, giving an inconsistent answer to the fundamental question: “Do you have enough firefighting aircraft?”

The facts are that there are 2 Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) and 16 Large Air Tankers (LAT) under Exclusive Use Agreement (EU), working for 160 days. To say “We have access to 27” VLAT and/or LAT is intentionally misleading. The Forest Service assumes that additional tankers under call-as-needed (CWN) contracts that may or may not be used, are still available at private companies, with flight crews and mechanics available and ready to go. quickly if the phone rings. And, that assumes that those companies are still in business and that the very expensive planes that may have been sitting idle for months are fully serviced and airworthy.

There are only a total of four VLATs in the Western Hemisphere that could be used on fires in the United States, all DC-10s. Two are on 160-day contracts with the EU Forest Service and two others have recently been activated on 120-day “overcharge” contracts. It is also usually possible to activate up to eight military C-130s temporarily converted into air tankers carrying a modular airborne firefighting system (MAFFS). But after hearing some chatter, we’re checking to see if these will be available this year.

Two studies conducted for the Forest Service have made recommendations on the number of air tankers needed under exclusive use contracts. One said 35 and the other 41.

2:00:30 – The very last topic covered was what we’ve called the holy grail of wildfire safety; know the real-time location of the fire and the firefighters. Senator Manchin pointed out that “15 months past the law’s deadline, the Forest Service has not equipped firefighters with safety equipment even though the technology has been commercially available for many, many years and although Congress appropriated $15 million for this, so maybe you have an explanation for that.

Chief Moore said: ‘No one believes it more than I do’, but he said his staff told him it wasn’t funded. The senator said he understood he was being funded. Both sides agreed to come together and find a solution.

The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act required that before March 12, 2021 the five federal land management agencies “…develop consistent protocols and plans for the use of unmanned aircraft system technologies on wildfires, including the development of real-time maps of the ‘location of forest fires.’

Although this technology has proven itself, real-time mapping seems to be far from being used routinely.

The Dingell Act also required that the five federal land management agencies “jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate fire resource positions for use by wildland firefighters, including, at a minimum, all fire resources assigned to Federal Wildfire Type 1 Incident Management Teams,” due the same date.

The United States Bureau of Land Management has installed equipment for Location Based Services (LBS) which is now operational on more than 700 fire trucks, crew transports and support vehicles. Vehicle position and usage data are displayed visually via a web portal or mobile app.

Fifteen months after being required by Congress, the US Forest Service has made very little progress on this mandate.

Whether or not the technology was specifically funded, it should be considered that the lack of situational awareness has resulted in dozens of wildfire deaths and needs to be addressed.

We asked Kelly Martin, President of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, for her impression of today’s hearing:

The remuneration of federal forest firefighters has been a priority for our elected officials since the adoption of the BIL last October. We are still waiting. We hope that this salary increase will be granted to firefighters in the next two weeks.

The article has been updated to include the question and answer on the requirement for the five federal land management agencies to provide technology for real-time location of fire and firefighters.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. See all articles by Bill Gabbert