This summer, wildland fires have caused terrible damage across the U.S. According to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, there were 30 wildland firefighter line of duty deaths this year as of August 12, including 19 who died on June 30 in Yarnell Hill, Ariz.
This summer, wildland fires have caused terrible damage across the U.S. According to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, there were 30 wildland firefighter line of duty deaths this year as of August 12, including 19 who died on June 30 in Yarnell Hill, Ariz. Now, a fire in California is threatening to engulf Yosemite National Park. While these major events captivate the public (and rightly so), far less attention is paid to the thousands of smaller wildland fires that occur every year across the U.S.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, from the start of the year through August 30 there have been 34,256 wildland fires in the U.S. that have burned nearly 3.8 million acres of land. Volunteer fire departments account for approximately 80% of the initial attack on wildland fires in the U.S. This is largely a matter of geography, as volunteer fire departments nearly are ubiquitous in rural areas where wildland fires frequently start.
According to national surveys, many smaller agencies lack adequate resources to equip and train their personnel to the level prescribed by national standards to fight wildland fires. Wildland fires that are not suppressed by local agencies in the initial phase can grow until they are out of control, leading to loss of lives, destruction of property and necessitating the deployment of state and federal resources to contain the fire.
The U.S. Forest Service helps local fire departments prepare to fight wildland fires through the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grant program. VFA awards funds on a 50/50 local matching basis to volunteer agencies protecting communities with 10,000 or fewer residents. VFA funds can be used to purchase wildland fire-specific training, equipment and protective clothing, which are different from than those used to fight structure fires.
In recent years, VFA funding requests have more than doubled, from $24.95 million in FY 2009 to approximately $61 million last year. This sharp increase in demand for funds is likely related to Congress eliminating the Rural Fire Assistance (RFA) program, which provided funding on a 90/10 local matching basis to agencies that entered into agreements to respond to fires on U.S. Department of Interior land.
In FY 2013, Congress appropriated $13.066 million for VFA, a reduction of approximately $3 million from the FY 2010 appropriated level and well below the $23 million provided in that year for RFA and VFA collectively. The president’s FY 2014 budget would reduce VFA funding further to $11.2 million. That funding level was adopted in the initial version of the FY 2014 Interior Appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee unveiled in July but has yet to be formally introduced.
The NVFC is asking Congress to restore VFA funding to the FY 2010 appropriated level of $16 million. Use the NVFC’s Capwiz service to contact your U.S. representative and senators directly to tell them to restore VFA funding so that local agencies will have access to the resources they need to fight wildland fire.
David Finger is the director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, a leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the voice of the volunteer in the national arena and provides invaluable tools, resources, programs and advocacy for first responders across U.S.