Federal agencies seek increase in wildfire funding for next fiscal year

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The United States Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are asking for a 37-47% increase in the wildfire budget.

USFS budget request for fire management resources, fiscal year 2023.

The Biden administration has prepared its FY 2023 wildfire management funding request which begins October 1, 2022. Congress has failed to do its homework and pass an actual FY 22 budget for the Departments of Agriculture and Interior (DOI), they only passed one continuing resolution, which is essentially the same budget as the previous year.

There is nothing binding in these requests. Congress determines the federal budget, but rationale documents provide insight into what agencies say they need, after being filtered through the upper echelons of administration. The demands also detail how taxpayers’ money has been spent over the past two years versus what they want to do next year.

United States Forest Service

The Forest Service (FS) is not asking for any change in the number of engines, bulldozers, helicopters, air tankers, smokers or prevention technicians, but they want additional “crews” and “other firefighters”, totaling 1,650 people.

In 2017, the FS reduced the number of Type 1 helicopters from 34 to 28, and since then the size of the fleet has remained stuck there most years. There were 44 large air tankers under exclusive use contract in 2002 and the agency is requesting 18 next year. Two studies indicated that there was a need for 35 or 41 large air tankers.

Use of large air tankers, 2000-2021
Use of large air tankers under exclusive use contracts by the US Forest Service, from 2000 to 2021. The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contracts, the number of aircraft requests tanks by firefighters (divided by 100) and the percentage of requests from firefighters for aerotankers that could not be filled. Data from NIFC, compiled by FireAviation.

The FY23 FY23 budget request is $9.0 billion. Of this amount, $2.7 billion, or 30%, would be earmarked for forest fires.

USFS Budget Request for Fire Management, Fiscal Year 2023
USFS budget request for fire management, fiscal year 2023.

In the current fiscal year, FY22, the U.S. Forest Service (FS) received $916,140,000 for fire preparedness and salaries, which covers most forest fire related expenses except of those devoted to the actual extinction of fires. For FY23, they are requesting $1,346,271,000, an increase of 47%.

The “Explanatory Notes” rationale for the FS fire budget does not list any past or current expenditures for fuels management in the fire budget, but requests $321,388,000 for FY23. Indeed, the hazardous fuels program will move from national forest system accounts to wildfire management beginning in FY23. But that will be an increase of $141,000,000, or 41%.

The total FS budget appropriation for wildfires, including suppression, fell from $2.3 billion and 10,219 FTEs in FY20 to $1.9 billion and 9,685 FTEs in in FY22. The agency is requesting $2.6 billion and 12,938 FTEs for FY23.

The four Department of the Interior land management agencies with large wildfire budgets are the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The summary below of the entire FS budget shows some interesting details, such as the decline in total expenditure on staff compensation and personal benefits over the past two years. Travel costs have nearly doubled while rental payments to the GSA have dropped by around 80%. The average dollar salary for GS staff, at approximately $59,000, is expected to remain relatively stable for the fourth consecutive year, and the average grade has fallen from 8.3 to 8.2 over the past three years.

USFS Entire Budget Request, Fiscal Year 2023
USFS Entire Budget Request, Fiscal Year 2023

Interior Department

The DOI is not asking for changes in the number of aircraft, but they want increases in virtually every other resource category, including all staff (+309), full-time equivalent (FTE) positions (+528) , smokejumpers (+4), engines (+6) and heavy equipment (+21).

DOI budget request, fire resources, fiscal year 2023
DOI budget request, fire resources, fiscal year 2023.

In the current fiscal year, FY22, the DOI received $347,105,000 for fire preparedness and salaries. For FY23, they are requesting $477,159,000, an increase of 37%. For dealing with hazardous fuels, they requested a 38% increase, or an additional $84,380,000 for FY23.

DOI Fire budget request, program changes for fiscal year 2023
DOI Fire Budget Request, FY 2023 Program Changes.

The DOI is asking for a 33% increase in the Joint Fire Science Program, from $3 million to $4 million. This program had a near-death experience under the previous administration.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

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