It’s not fire season yet but it’s as busy as fire season. Preparation for seasonal firefighters coming on, for training, and for fire readiness reviews fill the days, but nothing looms larger than the budget. The fire management staff meets weekly if not more often to look at the budget and try to squeeze more proverbial drops of blood from this turnip. Can we bring someone on a pay period early? Can we afford another seasonal? Can we staff our engines with the required number of people or do we put one engine out of service?
Questions like these fill my mind. I think about budget more than I’d like and I’m always the bad news bear. Nine times out of 10 if the answer is no, it’s because of budget.
Last week I spent five days in Washington D.C. for training. I didn’t get a lot of time to sight-see but I did visit the Iwo Jima memorial at night. It was stunning. While riding the Metro to and from my training I listened to the audio book The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Coincidentally, the following week I was in Phoenix for training and left town early enough to stop at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. My mind jumped back and forth between the crisp and chiseled magnificence of the monument I stood before in D.C. and the wild mountain side I found myself on a week later. They are both memorials commemorating American heroism but Yarnell Hill lies within our borders, it happened here, not on a foreign shore and marks a decidedly western tragedy.
The mountain was covered in wildflowers so prolific it looked like they were trying to erase the remnants of the fire, but the charred trees, cactus carcasses, and black stumps are still there. The thick, hazardous fuels that burned in the fire left room for new vegetation to regenerate; the by-product fuels crews produce when there is money to do this kind of work before a fire ignites and wreaks havoc because it hasn’t been done.
A sweet honey suckle scent lilted on the air and I kept my nose up, sniffing like a dog following the scent of something fantastic. I bent to smell half a dozen flowers but never discovered the origin of the fragrance. There were so many flowers leaning into the trail and whipping my legs that I looked like a bee after it’s been in a flower, the powdery pollen making light lashes across my legs before exploding into fine particles stuck to and glowing on my black pants.
It was overcast and a cold wind blew hard from the south making the lonely landscape more subdued than it already was. It wasn’t hard to imagine that fateful day when the wind shifted and turned the fire on 19 men with nowhere to go. As I walked, my mind was like a teakettle blowing its whistle in alarm each time images of this event bubbled up and mixed with my anxiety over our anorexic land management budgets. With already strangled and anemic budgets handed down by Congress and hampered by conflicting policy within the BLM, the prospect of bigger budget cuts next fiscal year from the new Administration sends a chill through my blood; not just because there will be less money, but because we will have to do more with less and many things will fall off the table. This means that saving money will take precedence over having an adequate staff to do the job, to do it well, and to do it safely.
For people not aware of the business side of wildland fire – or public lands management, the few brief mentions of budget woes in the book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots probably wouldn’t register on the radar – but they did for me. I could relate and shared the frustration with those angry and frustrated by budget constraints when I listened to how cuts to wildland fire budgets had been off-set with prison crews because they were cheaper, and how State Forester Scott Hunt warned that the cuts would have a significant impact on public safety, namely through the devastating drop in the number and availability of personnel and resources to manage the lands and fight wildfires.
So often when tragedies occur we look to the decision makers on the ground for answers: Which policies did they break? What did they miss or ignore? Could they have made better decisions? We do this not only to assess blame or to understand, but to help ourselves believe that if something different had been decided, the tragedy would not have occurred. But rarely do we look at the pernicious root cause of so many of the decisions: budget cuts made in the chambers of Congress.
This is not to say that if we had adequate budgets no one would ever die, but to suggest that budgets do play a part in how decisions are made and how safe people are. In both the Yarnell Hill Fire and the South Canyon Fire, resources were scarce when they needed them most. Fires do not get in line to ignite, they pop off like popcorn in a popper; dozens of fires can be going at once and the resources go fast. Most Incident Commanders know to order every resource they think they might need to fight a fire because if they don’t get those resources first, they might not get them at all.
Part of the problem for the BLM in particular is the policy determining which fund pays for what. There are two main pots of money: preparedness and suppression. Policy clearly defines what both are for. In the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation book (Red Book) preparedness is defined as the state of being “ready” to provide an appropriate response to the wildland fires based on identified objectives and is the result of activities that are planned and implemented prior to fire ignitions. It states that preparedness activities should focus on developing interagency response capabilities that will result in safe, effective, and efficient fire operations aligned with risk-based fire management decisions.
Suppression is putting preparedness into action to fight the fire in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Preparedness dollars are given to the district as part of their budget on an annual basis. Suppression dollars come from a national emergency fund.
The NWCG Interagency Incident Business Management Handbook (Yellow Book) states that any time worked in support of the incident will be charged to the incident. Hours worked performing regular home unit duties will be charged to the employee’s home unit funds. In other words, when you are on a fire, your time should be charged to the fire – or suppression.
Most labor costs go to preparedness, but strangely firefighters have to charge their base eight hours to preparedness even when they are suppressing fires per policy in the BLM Standards for Fire Business Management (Orange Book). Aside from the fact that this conflicts with policy outlined in the Red and Yellow books, it basically means that preparedness dollars, those set aside to get prepared for a fire, are being used for suppression, or for fighting the fire. This is detrimental for several reasons.
First, it fixes money given to the district and locks it up, giving very little wiggle room for decision-makers to make sound decisions based on the best tactics to fight the fire or be prepared for the fire season. Second, it means that regardless of where the firefighters are working, be it out of state or in a different region, that district is paying to have the labor used elsewhere. This means they not only lose the labor, but those dollars are not going to their own district – perhaps for hazardous fuels reduction. And third, this means less hiring and thus less people to manage very chaotic and complex situations, less equipment and tools for getting the job done, and less stewardship of the land being managed for the citizens of this country.
Policy states that budget should not determine how a fire is fought and yet it was on Yarnell Hill.
As I walked on that hallowed ground, an entire hill set aside in remembrance of the firefighters who died there, I thought about the American landscape and what it holds, how our Republic was literally built upon it and that people across the centuries have put sweat, labor, toil, fought for and even burned and died on it. Our lands tell these stories, they are living memorials from coast to coast, but particularly in the West where the land is the defining factor of the people, the communities, and the culture. If land management agencies lose funding, public lands will be no more.
Walking down the deserted and lonely hill, I thought of something said in the book, “We’re the front line,” Danny said to Wade. “On September eleventh, 2001, they didn’t call the navy. They didn’t call the Marine Corps. They called the policemen and the firemen. We are the soldiers of our community.”
Our public lands are the Homeland; they tell the story of our Nation and the people who built it. If we do not adequately fund land management agencies, who will manage and be stewards of our public lands, and further, will there even be any lands left to manage?