Leadership Corner

The fire year ahead…and what we can do about it

May 11th, 2018 at 10:45AM

Photo: Official portrait of Vicki Christiansen.
Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, USDA Forest Service

It’s been quite a week!

For me, it started when I traveled to Sacramento, California, where I joined new employees for an orientation to the Forest Service. I also gave my first live media interview as Interim Chief.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and 20 members of Congress in a conversation about our interagency response to wildfires this year and our joint efforts to improve the condition of America’s forests. The secretaries signed a joint memorandum to wildland fire leadership highlighting the importance of working across the entire fire community to increase firefighter, public and community safety.

At the end of a whirlwind week, I took some time to reflect on the year ahead and all the work before us, especially in view of what is shaping up as a busy fire year.

The 2017 fire year set the stage. It started in the fall of 2016, when wildland firefighters responded to massive conflagrations in the Southern Appalachians. Many of those same firefighters deployed throughout the year as major fires broke out across the West, ending with record-breaking fires in California. At the time of peak response, more than 28,000 federal, state, tribal and local firefighters took the field.

Last year broke multiple records in the history of wildland firefighting. Dozens of Americans lost their lives, including 14 wildland firefighters. More than 12,300 structures were destroyed and more than 10 million acres burned, an area larger than the state of Maryland. The federal government spent a record $2.9 billion on suppression, including $2.4 billion by the Forest Service alone.

Year after year, “above-normal” fire activity seems to have become our new “normal,” and this year could prove the same. Wildfire activity is predicted to be “above normal” for large parts of the West, from Montana south to Texas and west to California, Oregon and Washington. As of May 10, almost 1.5 million acres had burned, about 40 percent more than the 10-year average.

We know it will take partnerships—all of us working together—to meet the challenges ahead. We are also committed to making decisions that give us the best chance for success. The federal agencies have the suppression resources we need, including about 15,000 firefighters, more than 1,500 engines and hundreds of aircraft ready to respond. We will also rely on steady support from our state and local cooperators.

But our work goes beyond wildfire response: it’s about improving forest conditions and helping communities adapt to wildfire. To fulfill our mission and meet the needs of the people we serve, we need to get a lot more work done on the ground.

Fortunately, the 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress gives us more of the funds and tools we need to get there. For 2018, we have $500 million in additional funding for suppression, and we also have $40 million in additional funding for hazardous fuels work. In 2020, a fire funding fix will kick in, stabilizing our suppression spending and reducing the risk of future fire transfers. The omnibus also expands our ability to use stewardship contracts and categorical exclusions for fuels and forest health work and to do more work with the states under our Good Neighbor Authority.

Now it’s up to us to deliver. We cannot be satisfied with business as usual. We need to use the additional tools and funds that Congress gave us to deliver on America’s expectations for us. That includes reforming outdated processes that keep us from getting more work done on the ground. Coupled with the additional tools and funds we have, these reforms will let us do more to reduce fuels, improve conditions in our nation’s forests and help communities rise to the challenge of living with fire.

All of this in turn will mean more jobs, more access, more fire-adapted communities and—hopefully—healthier forests and fewer catastrophic fires in the years to come.

Slide: 2018 fire briefing slide depicting numbers of assets, acres used in 2017 firefighting.
There are 15,000 firefighters ready to deploy for the 2018 fire season. Interim Chief Christiansen joined Secretary Perdue and Secretary Zinke to discuss interagency wildfire response with members of Congress.
Photo: Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen gives a presentation.
Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen spoke during the May 10, 2018, fire briefing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA photo by Tom Witham.
Photo: Secretaries Zinke and Perdue hold up signed fire memoranda.
Secretaries Perdue and Zinke signed a joint fire memorandum to wildland fire leadership at the May 10, 2018, fire briefing to members of Congress. USDA photo by Tom Witham.