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Media Call on Wildland Fire Forecast, Federal Preparedness, and Available Assets

Press Release

Location: Unknown


Tom Vilsack, Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sally Jewell, Secretary of U.S. Department of Interior, Ernest Mitchell, U.S. Fire Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jeremy Sullens, Wildfire Analyst, Predictive Services, National Interagency Fire Center

Monday, May 13, 2013 - 1 p.m., EDT

Coordinator: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us for our media call today. We appreciate your being on the line. Our topic today is the 2013 fire season outlook as well as an outline of the federal government's efforts to ensure collaboration in protecting the public from wildfires.

Joining us on the phone line from Boise we have Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack along with Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell. We also have Chief Ernest Mitchell, who is the US Fire Administrator from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And if you'd like to ask a question of them, anything that you are interested in knowing about their discussion, let us know by pressing star 1 on your touchtone pad. And with that I turn it over to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Tom Vilsack: Thank you very much. I want to welcome everybody to the call. In the interest of keeping the order that we had agreed upon I'm going to turn over the microphone to Secretary Jewell to lead us off and then I will make a few comments and then turn it over to Chief Mitchell so, Secretary Jewell.

Sally Jewell: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Well, I am delighted to be here in Boise, Idaho and I'm not sure where all of our press hail from but I can tell you that in this community, the home of the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC for short, fire is very much on people's minds as it is throughout the Western United States, in particular.

And in my now fifth week on the job, starting today, I can tell you that I've had two fire briefings and already a trip out here to NIFC because fires are a very, very important part of the portfolio of the Department of the Interior and something that I'm certainly going to stay tuned in to.

And in fact when Secretary Vilsack and I met while I was going through my confirmation process it's one of the first things that he talked about with me. So the thing that is most extraordinary about NIFC here where we are is that there are no barriers between the agencies in working together in the thoughtful management of wild land fire throughout this country but in particular this time of year in the Intermountain West.

We work with local organizations, Indian tribes, states across all the bureaus of the federal government together sharing assets, being completely interchangeable to work on these wild land fire issues as they arise.

And what has been pretty amazing for me to see is how sophisticated the coordinating efforts are and how well people take a look at the risks, the circumstances, how we fight those fires, whether we fight those fires or whether it's important from a future prevention standpoint to let them burn. So it's a very, very interesting command center here in Boise and really been a pleasure to be here.

Had a chance yesterday to go up in a plane with some smoke jumpers as they were practicing. It is hard to imagine jumping in to fight a fire in hand to hand combat but people do it very, very well. The hot shot crews that are a big part of this effort, the trucks and engines that we've actually seen today regardless of what agency they're from do an extraordinary job. And I am both impressed and grateful to the men and women that serve our country in this way.

I also had a chance to visit the Firefighter's Memorial and it's a powerful reminder about safety and that a good fire season is bringing everybody home safely. No fatalities, no serious injuries. And that's what we're committed to doing.

Fire is also part of the natural balance. It is essential for our lands and always has been. When we as human beings upset that balance in some ways it becomes a little more difficult and we've done that over the years.

And I think that as we become more sophisticated setting preventive fires doing advance work in terms of reducing hazardous fuel loads, taking personal initiative as private homeowners to reduce challenges around our own private property are all really, really important in protecting the safety and well being of our firefighters but also reducing the risk on our public lands.

We are facing another dangerous wildfire season. We are prepared to fight fires. We're not as funded to take advantage of where we might be five years from now in fighting future fires. And that is one of the challenges of the budget system that we face.

Teamwork is really critical to doing what we're going to do so we've seen where assets are, we've seen how they've been positioned and we've learned, today, at least I have learned, I know Secretary Vilsack already knew all this stuff, I've learned about how they predict where the fires are going to be and how they stage the assets to jump on those that they expect are going to potentially become problematic in the future.

So I just want to end by saying that anything you the national press can do to help the people of the United States understand that it's their responsibility as well to remove fuels around their house, to clear brush, trees, flammable materials, to go to, the Website, and there they can find information on fire wise communities and Ready, Set, Go to learn more about their responsibilities and what they can do to protect their property but also the lives of our firefighters and to use their assets in the best way possible.

So with that I will turn the mic over to my colleague, Secretary Vilsack.

Tom Vilsack: Sally, thanks very much. Just to give you a sense of this, there's really a three-step process here both the Department of Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service are obviously involved in trying to do as - the best job we can with limited resources to make our forests as resilient and as protected against fire as possible.

That's why we engage in a good deal of restoration work. We are now at a time in the season where we need to begin to prepare for what will likely be a difficult fire season as we position assets and as we sort of take stock of where we are. And then obviously when fires occur it's our reasonability to do the best job we can in responding and potentially suppressing the fire.

To give you a sense as of May 3 we had already seen nationally 13,115 fires covering about 153,000 acres. Now this is actually down from last year by about 5000 fires and about 10,000 fewer than the year before. But we should not be lulled into a false sense of security about the nature of our upcoming fire season.

Last year we experienced 9.3 million acres that was exposed to fire; it's the largest since 1960. Forty-four hundred structures were impacted and damaged as a result of fire. We've had some serious drought obviously in 2012, which has continued in many parts of the country. And so we are preparing and expecting a challenging season.

Obviously the key here is for collaboration and cooperation and communication. And we have always done a particularly good job of working through that from the local, regional and national level.

We'll have roughly 13,000 firefighters on board by the time the season is in full swing. We'll commit 1000 engines to assist us in suppressing fires, 26 multi-engine air tankers, three water-scooper aircraft and 27 single-wing air tankers as well as hundreds of helicopters will be put to use in trying to fight the fires that need to be fought.

Our firefighters do an extraordinary job contain in a very quick period about 98% of the fires. Obviously conditions sometimes make it difficult to do that and so we will no doubt be seeing fires of some significant size.

Sally mentioned the fact that individuals and communities have a responsibility to prepare as well. There are 70,000 communities that are on the urban wild land interface so that basically creates a significant risk. And to the extent that people can take it upon themselves to create a buffer between their home and their structure or their business and the forest that would certainly be helpful.

The building materials that people are using as they begin to do spring renovations can also make a difference, treating decks, things of that nature to reduce the risk.

Secretary Jewell mentioned the Fire Wise and Ready, Set, Go programs. If folks want to go on the Web at they'll learn more information about steps that they can take to be proactive.

There are roughly 45 million acres in this country that require treatment. With restrained budgets we're doing everything we can to begin to restore as many of those acres as we possibly can. We need stewardship contracting authority extended by Congress. We need to continue to fund the collaborative forest landscape partnership effort. We'll continue to put resources behind the bark beetle effort as well as the wood energy projects.

But the reality is that both departments are facing challenging budgets and as a result of sequester and across the board cuts that have been applied we'll have about 500 fewer firefighters at the Forest Service than we would otherwise have. That may impact about 50 engines that we would otherwise have.

Nevertheless we're going to work hard to make sure the job gets done protecting people and property in that order and making sure that our firefighters are safe. And we hope we get through this fire season without any fatalities.

So with that I'd like to turn it over to another partner who works with us in connection with these fires and that's our good friends at FEMA and turn it over to Chief Ernest Mitchell.

Ernest Mitchell: Thank you, Secretary Vilsack. And I'd just like to echo what Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Jewell have said and the fact that we need the public's assistance with all this fire hazard and danger in the upcoming season.

As a member of the team we also are encouraging them to implement fire prevention and preparedness efforts. The phrase that we are championing with the public today is that fire is everyone's fight and we have various roles.

In the wild land fire season our primary role is to provide assistance through matching federal funds to local firefighters in these major wild land fires through what we call FMAG or Fire Management Assistance Grant program. And that is our primary role in this. And I would just entertain any questions that might be related to that.

But I'd like to turn it over to Jeremy and Predictive Services.

Jeremy Sullens: Hello, everyone. My name is Jeremy Sullens. I'm the Wildfire Analyst for Predictive Services here at the National Interagency Fire Center. For fire season 2013 we're really looking at a tale of two different halves of the country.

In the Eastern United States we've seen quite a bit of frequent periodic precipitation input that have led to the conditions Secretary Vilsack stated where we've seen an actual reduction in the number of fire acres burned that we would normally see this time of year largely that because up to this point we would see most of our fires across the Eastern and Southeastern United States.

As we move into fire season, so through May into June and through July and August, our fire season tends to transition to the Western United States and it's a very different story out West. Out West we've got severe drought conditions that have been in place for quite some time now. And very little precipitation has occurred since the beginning of 2013. In fact in some areas, specifically California, we've seen less than 25% of the annual precipitation that we would expect for the year so far.

What that's leading us to is an expectation that we're going to see some above-normal significant fire potential across the Southwest moving up into some portions of the Four Corners area. That's likely to tail off as we move into July and the monsoonal season begins to develop.

But really where we're thinking we're going to have a severe problem this fire season is in the Pacific Coast states moving into Idaho and Southwestern Montana so across California, Oregon and South Central Washington and moving into the mountainous areas of Idaho and Southwestern Montana we're expecting very dry conditions in the heavier fuel types.

That's especially true where we're going to see areas where we have heavy fuel types combining with this previous drought that we've seen and leading to significant fire potential.

In wider vegetation areas such as the grasslands or the great basin the drought actually has had such an impact that we don't have quite the light fuel crops that we would in normal seasons. So we're expecting fires to continue to occur in those areas but we're not likely to see the large significant fires that we saw last year, for example, across those areas.

Woman: All right. Thanks, I think we're ready to take questions.

Coordinator: Okay, we do have callers that are on the line. Once again if you'd like to ask a question of any of those who are on our panel let us know by pressing star 1. Let's go to Rob Chaney with Missoulian Newspaper. Rob.

Rob Chaney: Good morning. Last week we announced the winners for the next generation fire tankers and of all of the companies that were selected only one actually has a plane that is ready to fly this season. The rest all have their certifications and their tank tests still to be completed. What does this leave you with as far as a strategy for aviation assets as we get the fire season underway?

Tom Vilsack: Well I think it's important to point out that we actually had, previous to that, finished the contracting for the tankers that we've used in the past so these are next generation tankers and we still continue to have the relationship that we have with state and local firefighting capacity. We have the relationship we have with the Department of Defense in terms of being able to use aircraft assets that are available to them.

So what we are basically announcing with this contract is basically adding to and hopefully over time supplementing aged-out aircraft. And we hope to be able to continue to work with the Department of Defense as they age out aircraft that could potentially be useable for Forest Service and for Interior efforts that they are available. So we're going to do the best we can with the resources that we have.

Coordinator: All right we'll go our next caller on the line from Salt Lake Tribune we have Nate Carlisle. Nate.

Nate Carlisle: Fighting fires we always hear about trying to protect homes but Utah is discovering that the wildfires are impacting their watershed. And I'm wondering how much consideration does Interagency give that when deciding whether or where to fight a fire?

Tom Vilsack: Well, you know, there is a process in which folks who have a number of years of experience get information from the ground to determine the most serious fires that are currently raging and being able to make the decisions about the allocation of assets.

I would say that the question that you asked I think has significant bearing in terms of what happens after the fire in terms of our ability to restore property and to reduce potential flooding that may occur as a result of what fires do to the soil.

And that's part of the challenge that we face with limited budgets, as I'm sure Secretary Jewell will allude to, when you take resources to suppress fires you sometimes have to take it from the very resources that you would use to restore property or to prevent fires to begin with. And that just basically shifts the risk to a much longer term and more serious risk.

Sally Jewell: Yeah, so I'll just jump in for a minute. This is Secretary Jewell. I've had a thorough briefing from the Bureau of Reclamation along with the Bureau of Land Management on the watershed issues, where are our critical watersheds and how does that knit together with our overall management of those assets and land.

As Secretary Vilsack pointed out we are preparing to suppress fires but we are not able to put the resources into mitigating the damage from those fires when they do occur to prevent some of the issues that can happen in watersheds such as, siltation and runoff or, you know, invasive species that move in that impact the habitat and the watershed over the long run.

So one of the consequences of taking resources and focusing them on suppression with limited resources is - you can't do as much of that advance work as you would like or the post-fire remediation that you would like to maintain the integrity of those ecosystems and watersheds.

Coordinator: We continue with callers on the line. Doyle Rice from USA Today.

Doyle Rice: Good afternoon. Thanks for doing this. Just a question for Jeremy. You'd said that this year we are actually way below average for both fires and acres burned and I just wondered you're still pretty confident that even though we're way below average that it still could turn into a bad season.

And I just - the second part is when was the last time we've had this low fire activity at this point in the year?

Jeremy Sullens: The first part of the question, again, as we transition out of the - what is typically the Eastern/Southeastern fire season and into the Western fire season we're confident that we're going to see above normal significant fire potential in those areas.

And whether or not it gets to a point where it brings us to an average position nationally that's hard to say. But we're confident that the Western United States is going to see an above normal significant fire potential season especially in those areas.

And as far as when the last time we saw this low number of fires and acres, as of the last time I checked last week this was the lowest in the last 10 year period but that's the best information I can provide you.

Tom Vilsack: I want to put a finer point on what Jeremy said. This is Tom Vilsack. I think it is important to remember that we still have over 40% of the continental U.S. in serious to moderate drought conditions. When you combine that with the substantial amount of beetle kill that has occurred in many Western states that is a prescription for very serious conditions.

And if we have above average temperatures, which we're expected to have, and below average precipitation, which could very well happen, that is a combination that doesn't bode well for a simple season. So we obviously have to be prepared to the extent we can be for the very worst and I think our folks are.

Sally Jewell: One statistic that might be useful for folks on the phone to understand is that 12 driest years we've had on record have been over the course of the last 15 years and that has been particularly true in the West. So just because we started of with a lower season in the Southeastern part of the United States has no bearing on where we think this fire season is going to go.

I think it's going to be a tough one. And growing up in the West and enjoying the great outdoors here you see the kind of tinderbox conditions that we have throughout many parts of the West and it's pretty scary for folks on the ground here.

So there's 12 driest years on record in the last 15 years is a pretty striking statistic. And we need to be thoughtful over the long run about managing these assets at a time of significant climate change, which we are - is certainly occurring particularly in this region of the country.

Coordinator: We continue with callers on the line from Albuquerque Journal, Rene Romo.

Rene Romo: Could you folks talk about the reduction in federal funding for the kind of projects that you would normally undertake to reduce fire hazards like thinning projects and how much have your thinning - has the thinning project budget declined in the last few years? How does that contribute to the dangerous conditions that we're facing right now?

Tom Vilsack: Well there are a couple things. I mean, first of all we are dealing with significantly challenged budgets. I can say that USDA budget is $1 billion below what it was in fiscal 2009 in terms of the discretionary overall spending. So we are obviously dealing with constrained budgets.

Having said that, we have looked for creative ways to partner with utility companies, with the private sector, that have a vested interest in protecting their assets whether it's the ski industry or outdoor recreation industry to try to see if we can stretch our resources and leverage our resources effectively.

The sequester clearly has an impact because of the way it's structured. Every line item gets cut across the board by a set percentage. In addition to the sequester we had an additional 2.5% cut on top of that was provided to USDA. So that means basically fewer acres. And it's difficult to quantify the exact number because of these partnerships but there's no question there'll be fewer acres that are treated.

There will obviously be fewer firefighters. There'll be fewer engines. And hopefully we'll be able to manage this situation and ensure that people are protected and their property is protected, I mean, that's the ultimate goal.

Coordinator: Our next caller is from the Associated Press, it's Rachel D'Oro. Rachel.

Rachel D'Oro: Yeah, I'm just wondering if there's anything you want to say about Alaska's outlook this year?

Jeremy Sullens: Alaska's significant wild land fire potential outlook - as we move through May there's below normal conditions in Southern Alaska because of the late snow pack. But as we move into later in the fire season we expect that snow pack to start to come off rather quickly and move into some of the drier interior portions of the state.

But really what that's going to lead us to is what we expect to be a generally normal season for Alaska, maybe somewhat later than normal.

Coordinator: Let's continue on the line from Arizona Public Radio, Laurel Morales. Laurel. Laurel, are you there? Okay, let's go to Patrick Rucker with Reuters. Oh actually we do have Laurel up, okay. Laurel. Laurel.

Laurel Morales: I'm here, can you hear me?

Coordinator: Yes we can.

Laurel Morales: Oh okay. I believe Rene already asked my question. But if you would elaborate, how difficult is it to prepare for the worst, as you say, with 50 fewer firefighters during a time of budget constraints?

Tom Vilsack: Well, you know, the challenge here obviously is - the reality is we're going to have so many fires and we have so many firefighters and so many engines and so many aircraft. We're going to do the very best we can to maximize the utilization of the resources we have to protect the people and property. That's the bottom line.

And to the extent that folks can take Secretary Jewell's advice and admonition to basically be taking steps today to prepare, to prevent and to avoid. That will make it a little bit easier for us to deal with the constrained budget.

We're going to do the best job we can. There's no question our folks are dedicated. They'll work as hard as they possibly can. But we're going to have 500 fewer firefighters and we're going to have 50 fewer engines.

Sally Jewell: I want to just to correct a statistic I threw out there. It was actually 12 of the hottest years on record over the last 15 not driest so just to make a quick correction on that.

The other thing I would like to add to what Secretary Vilsack said is that we will fight the fires. And to the extent that we do have challenges in the urban wild land interface and protect those properties, those are resources that'll be dedicated to things that perhaps homeowners could have done something about at the expense of some of our other public lands that are in fact critical habitat for species, critical places for people who enjoy hunting and fishing and outdoor recreation.

So there are tradeoffs that we make. And the things that is very clear in both the budgets of the Interior and Agriculture is that the ability to reduce that fuel load, to thoughtfully manage the resources over the long term is being significantly impacted by the budget cuts that we are experiencing.

And it's one of the challenging tradeoffs that we have to make. So we are not following the phrase, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure to the extent that we wish we were able to. And we think that there are much more thoughtful ways to budget for challenging situations like we are in with the fuel load and the wild land fire situation then what we're presently allowed to do.

For example, when you have a really bad fire year we shouldn't have to take it out of our existing budgets, there should be some capacity to tap into emergency funds so that we can, on a thoughtful year-in, year-out basis, do the right thing for managing the fuel load and the remediation of fires that have occurred to prevent them from happening in the devastating way in the future.

Coordinator: Okay, we have time for one last caller and that's from Reuters, Patrick Rucker.

Patrick Rucker: Yeah, hi. This is Patrick Rucker. Yeah, Secretary Vilsack, can you give us - a quick question on, you know, 500 firefighters, 50 trucks or units, put that in perspective with the overall landscape of the - of the response force that can be brought. And then follow up would just be the President has made climate change an issue. He's asked all his departments to address that.

Are there two or three things you can point to that are being done differently or will be done differently in light of what the President has said? Is, you know, a phenomenon the country has to brace for?

Tom Vilsack: First of all the Forest Service would, under normal circumstances, have 10,500 folks or so on staff either temporary or permanent firefighters available. That number will actually be 10,000 instead of 10,500 so that gives you a sense of - in terms of personnel. The 50 engines is related to 1000 engines so that gives you a sense of the proportions.

As it relates to climate change I can tell you that we're doing quite a bit as a result of the President's instruction and as a result of the need for American agriculture in forested areas to be able to adapt and mitigate the consequences of climate change.

I'll just touch on a couple. First of all, we've doubled the research budget in these areas to try to determine best management practices in terms of water management, in terms of seed technology, in terms of planning decisions.

Secondly we have focused on reducing barriers that currently exist to multi-cropping and cover cropping. We are pretty convinced that multi-cropping and cover-cropping will allow us to mitigate the impact and consequences of particularly dry weather.

And third we're significantly increasing outreach so that folks understand the conservation benefits of multi-cropping and cover-cropping. And I would say that probably next month there will be an announcement of a series of other steps that we're taking that I'll save until next month but we are clearly focused on this because of the President's direction and leadership.

Sally Jewell: And to add from the perspective of Interior, first to the question of staffing and resources, Secretary Vilsack has been talking about Forest Service resources, the Department of Interior, through various bureaus, BLM, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service all have assets that they bring to the - bring to bear here. And all have been impacted.

Some of the things that you may not think about that are going to be a factor is we've reduced the seasonal rangers, for example, in the National Park Service and reduced the hours of seasonal staffing throughout the various bureaus.

When we do that many of these folks who may be primarily a wildlife biologist or an interpretive ranger or a maintenance have red cards that enable them to fight fires as well. With fewer resources like that that we're able to call in for backup our ability to respond is going to be impacted.

And we will fight the fires that need to be fought but it will potentially have a even more significant impact on our budget if we are unfortunate in terms of the fire season that's upon us. So, you know, safety is paramount. Protecting people and property, as Secretary Vilsack pointed out, is paramount. But there are consequences for doing that that aren't ideal in how we manage the landscape over the long term.

In terms of climate change I'd echo what Secretary Vilsack said. We don't have a lot of cover cropping so not that part. But leading into the science that we have available to understand the risks and get ahead of that the US geological survey has some emerging tools like the capacity to look at evapo-transpiration which is how much water is being lost in the landscape whether it's through agricultural methods or in the Bureau of Reclamation through the reservoirs or through the canals that transport water.

So we can be smarter applying that science to mitigate for the impacts of climate change. Certainly all the bureaus are looking at how they adapt their resources to a changing climate and being - trying to stay a step ahead of the game. But that is - that is difficult.

I think that one thing that's happening across the federal government in partnership with states and private landowners and others is looking at things on a more landscape-level basis; looking at the things that a private land owner can do that may help them over the long run and also help us thoughtfully steward the public lands over the long run in a context of a changing climate, of hotter driers years and increasing fire risk.

So those are just a handful of things. But a lot of energy and work and thought is going into this certainly at Interior.

Coordinator: Okay everyone we have run past our time and we want to thank everyone who participated. And that concludes our call.

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