The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews
The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.
Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.
C-130H air tankers
The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.
More hand crews
The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.
The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”
One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.
The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface.
The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.
The appropriations bill passed by Congress which may soon be signed by the President does not have any earthshaking changes to the wildland fire budgets of the land management agencies in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service. Wildfire Today has the details about the bill which allocates funding for this fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.
There is one interesting section that may affect contracts for firefighting aircraft.
The “explanatory statement” that accompanies the bill has a surprisingly lengthy section (at the end of this article) that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considers awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.
The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.
The Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 contracts were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. This trend of only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. In an interview with Fire Aviation in October, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:
“If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved,” Mr. Snyder said. “It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.”
The explanatory statement also addresses aircraft on state or local contracts:
“The Committee is concerned that, in some cases, aerial firefighting companies put forward by states for inclusion in Cooperator Letters, and that are certified by states as meeting the equivalent of either Forest Service or Department of Interior standards, are not receiving timely approval or are receiving conditional approvals that limit states from fully utilizing their resources to fight wildfires. Given the patchwork of state and federal lands and the scale of wildfires, the Committee urges timely and transparent Cooperator Letter decisions to allow states to adequately respond to regional wildfires, including providing feedback to state wildfire agencies with detailed rationale for denials of requests. The Forest Service is directed to brief the Committee within 180 days of enactment of this Act on actions that can be taken to improve this process to include the feasibility of federal carding outside the federal contracting process.”
In October I wrote about the need for longer aviation contracts:
“Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts.
“Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. And, firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.”
Below is the text from the “explanatory statement” regarding length of aviation contracts that accompanies the appropriations bill (HR-7612):
The end of summer means the heart of fire season for many Americans. You’ve probably read about a fire somewhere in the United States; so far this year, more than 43,000 fires have burned in states throughout the country, with more than 7 million acres destroyed or damaged nationwide and more than a thousand acres locally in Nebraska. In practical terms, these fires have ravaged property, homes and lives, leaving behind burned out businesses and discarded family memories.
Those on the front lines working to protect lives and livelihoods need every tool available to fight back and keep the fires at bay. For many working to head off the next big fire, it also means managing lands at high risk for the next devastating blaze through prescribed burns. And over the past several years, firefighters have embraced a new tool to help them manage fires: drones.
My company, Drone Amplified, is a Nebraska small business that is helping firefighters across America. We founded our company based on pioneering work conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Our product, Ignis, is a sophisticated drone-based system that works in concert with fire-protection agencies to set fires in areas that have been identified as high risk. These burns effectively eliminate the fuel wildfires rely on to spread out of control. They are critical tools for federal, state and local agencies charged with reducing fire danger.
Right now, drones are helping state and federal officials in California battle fires throughout the state. Officials in neighboring Colorado used our Ignis system to perform backburns to contain the Pine Gulch fire, which is the largest fire in Colorado history. Drones have become part of everyday wildfire management and prevention.
Drones are key to wildfire management not because they are exciting and futuristic. It’s because they are safer and cheaper than the traditional approach using manned helicopters. Since July of this year alone, at least five people have died in helicopters and airplanes flying aerial firefighting missions. By contrast, an unmanned drone can fly through smoke or at night, eliminating such risks. And a United States Department of Agriculture study found that using a drone with our Ignis system for fire prevention work costs $1,800 a day, compared to $16,000 a day when using a helicopter.
Despite the success we’ve seen with drones in controlling and fighting wildfires, recent policy proposals risk reversing the success we’ve seen in using drones for wildfire management. For example, a key bill under consideration in Congress would ban certain drones based on where they are made. Under these proposed policies, a majority of federal, state and local firefighters couldn’t use many of their drones even if a single part was made in China, grounding much of the deployed drone fleet and leaving a gaping hole in the resources first responders use today.
These proposals stem from fear that drones made in China actually send data to China and, more specifically, the Chinese government. Of course, it’s right to be concerned about data security. We have to know the products we rely on are secure and safe. But recently, we’ve seen studies from independent third-party testers that demonstrate how drones from a leading drone manufacturer, Chinese-based DJI, do not transmit data to China. And that’s important to us. Our business, and the work of so many firefighters, counts on drone technology from around the world. Knowing that our data is protected is absolutely critical. Without that knowledge, we wouldn’t do business with DJI or any other company. After all, we’re a business that works with firefighters and law enforcement every day. We care deeply about protecting our nation’s security and the privacy of user data. If we didn’t trust it, we wouldn’t use it.
One way to better assess the data security risks associated with drones is to consider the creation of government-issued standards to protect data and make sure user data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands — standards that would apply to any drone no matter where it was made. This should be complemented with investments in American companies that are developing the next generation of drone technologies.
As a Nebraska startup, we’re passionate about our work and our innovation. We want to be recognized for creating something truly meaningful. We want to grow and contribute to the Nebraska economy. But we can’t do that if Washington sets policy based out of fear, with no consideration for the real-world impacts. We need Washington to reconsider these proposals that would ban drones because of their country-of-origin. Instead, policymakers in Washington should set national standards that would apply to everybody, whether the technology is made in China, France or the United States.
Drones may seem like gadgets used by amateur pilots and aviation geeks. And that would probably be true. But for many of us, they are literally saving lives. Washington needs to let us continue what we and many others are doing to protect people and communities from wildfires.
Carrick Detweiler received his Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a faculty member in the Computer Science and Engineering Department in 2010. In 2015, he co-founded Drone Amplified to commercialize technology developed at UNL. He is currently the CEO of Drone Amplified which is redefining fire management practices by enabling safe, efficient and low-cost aerial ignition and fire analytics.
The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.
No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.
The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.
Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.
Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.
I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.
You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.
Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.
Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!
Leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today announced they have reached a bipartisan agreement on a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extension through September 30, 2017, that will affect the U.S. aviation system, including the use of unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), over wildfires.
Much of the agreement is directed toward airports and passenger screening, but four sections will be of interest to wildfire agencies.
The proposed legislation will require that the FAA convene industry stakeholders to facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft. This is the first time I have heard of this idea. If implemented, when a UAS interferes with firefighting aircraft the operator could be identified, making it possible to slap them with a fine of up to $20,000, which is another provision in the agreement.
In addition, the proposed legislation requires the development of technologies to mitigate threats posed by errant or hostile unmanned aircraft systems. This could make it possible to disable a UAS that is interfering with aircraft operations over a wildfire.
The FAA is also directed to enter into agreements with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, as necessary, to continue the expeditious authorization of safe unmanned aircraft system operations in support of firefighting operations.
The leaders of the House and Senate said they hope to get the passed legislation to the president before the July 15 expiration of the FAA’s current authorization.
California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed three bills related to regulating drones on October 3. One of them would have given firefighters immunity for disabling hobbyist drones flying over emergency situations.
At a recent congressional hearing U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry James Hubbard said there were reports of 21 drone incursions in firefighting airspace this year — 12 of them grounded aircraft until the drones were removed from the area.
On May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires.
The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.
Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.
The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.
Recently there have been two proposals for enhancing the aerial firefighting capability in the state of Colorado. A bill has been introduced with very specific requirements for aircraft, and the new but unfunded state agency, Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC), issued a report with different recommendations.
As you can see below in the table that we put together, the two proposals are very different.
One of the unusual features of the proposed legislation is the requirement that the large air tankers be capable of night operations. As far as we know, no wildland firefighting agency in the world has routinely conducted fixed wing retardant drops at night. Dropping retardant at 150 miles per hour at 100 to 150 feet above the ground in mountainous terrain with turbulent wind conditions is very difficult in daylight conditions. The proposal by the state senators to attempt to do it at night would be a huge leap above and beyond the current norm.
We asked Senator King, who has been very active in recent months about acquiring better aerial firefighting capacity for Colorado, for his impression of the recommendations in the CFAC report that came out seven days after his bill was introduced. He said he is willing to modify his bill:
[The CFAC proposal] reiterates that the state of Colorado desperately needs aerial resources to increase our rapid-response capabilities and the effectiveness of firefighters on the ground. While SB14-164 has been criticized for being too prescriptive, we needed a jumping-off point and myself and President Carroll would be more than willing to incorporate Director Cooke’s recommendations into the bill.