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Transcript Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, Interior Secretary Jewell, Forest Service Chief Tidwell Media Briefing on Projections for Upcoming Wildfire Season; Stress Need to Change the Way Catastrophic Wildfires are Funded

June 9, 2015

Moderator: Thank you for joining us. We are here to talk about the projections for the upcoming 2015 wildfire season. We have on the line Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell who are all going to be discussing this topic. Reporters if you want to ask a question, please let us know by pressing star one. Let's get to it. Secretary Vilsack, good afternoon.

Tom Vilsack: Well thank you very much and I certainly appreciate Secretary Jewell and Chief Tidwell being with me as well. We just finished a press conference surrounded by a group of brave men and one woman who are firefighters who are now racing for the upcoming fire season. We've already had 23,000 fires already.

There's a 93% chance that we will spend at the United States Forest Service somewhere between $810 million and $1.62 billion in fighting these fires which means that we potentially face the same dilemma that we faced for the last several years of having to borrow money from the very funds that would allow us to do a better job of restoring our forests to make them more resilient and to reducing the risk of these catastrophic fires.

It's for that reason that we continue to ask congress to look at the most catastrophic fires as the natural disasters that they are and to be able to provide resources and funding through the emergency FEMA budget rather than through the operating budgets of either the Forest Service or the Department of Interior.

I can tell you that we continue to see an ever increasing amount of the Forest Service budget allocated towards fire suppression - nearly 50% of the budget in the past several years. That has significantly increased over the last generation or so and yet we still look for ways in which we can reduce the risk of fire. We have been focused on hazardous fuel reduction through our hazardous fuel program doing 2.5 million acres last year.

Treatment - we continue to collaborate with partners through our collaborative forest landscape restoration program - 23 projects improving the landscape of 1.4 million acres, reducing the risk of fire, treating more board feet, working with NRCS through the join chief's initiative - all of that designed to do a better job of resilience and restoration efforts.

We also continue to work collaboratively with local and state governments and other organizations to build the awareness of the need for individual homeowners and communities to be fire ready. We have a series of programs focused on making sure that folks take the steps that they can to limit risk - a ready set go program - the fire wise program designed to provide greater awareness. And we are obviously prepositioning assets today.

Over 10,000 firefighters will be employed by the forest service during the fire season. We're pleased with the efforts that congress has provided and allowing us to increase and modernize our fixed wing large air tanker fleet. We now have 21 fixed wing large air tankers available for use - it was just eleven just a few years ago, 100 helicopters ready to be put into action and we continue to increase our fleet with retrofitting planes that we've received from the coastguard under the Defense Appropriations Act of last year - all of this designed to provide us the resources to be able to fight fires effectively and efficiently.

I'm going to turn it over to Secretary Jewell who shares with us in the Department of Interior this enormous responsibility of protecting life and property of our firefighters and those who live in the 70,000 communities and 45 million homes that are interfacing our forest and lands. It's been a great partner, a great advocate for adequate resources and a great advocate for fire ready communities. Secretary Jewell.

Sally Jewell: Thank you, Secretary Vilsack. I can't think of a better partner in these efforts. You and your folks have just been terrific and good afternoon everyone. Greetings from Denver, Colorado where it has been wet and it's green outside and you wouldn't think of it as a place with high fire risk, but I will tell you that there's an awful lot of fuel out there that's growing very actively and if it dries out and if we have some dry lightning, it'll be a very different picture in just a few months.

You know, managing wild land fires requires a high level of coordination among all effective agencies, fire prone communities and private land owners and state players all working closely together because wildfires know no boundaries. So it's absolutely essential that we have this teamwork and cooperation and I just appreciate all the work that Interior and USDA does on this front alongside so many partners at the state, local and private level.

We've also had a chance to meet with some of the firefighters and the smoke jumpers who work on the front lines to suppress wild fires. These are courageous men and women who put in long hours of hard work in very difficult circumstances. They're away from their families and friends for long stretches of time and of course there's risk in the work that they do, even though we're very committed to their safety.

So on behalf of Secretary Vilsack and myself, I want to acknowledge all the firefighters, the employees and the people across the country who make up our interagency team responsible for insuring our success each wildfire season. These people care about their jobs and their communities and we are grateful for their service and their expertise.

We know that we're facing another potentially severe and dangerous wildfire season and Chief Tidwell will give you more information on that. It is no question it's exacerbated by climate change. It's led to prolonged western drought and longer, hotter, dryer fire seasons. Extreme wild fires can risk drinking water for millions of Americans. They threaten our power grids, they destroy homes and businesses and repairing damage to water sheds caused by wild fires can cost millions and take decades for vegetation to grow back so there's a lot at stake for everyone.

Interior - we have more than 500 million acres of public land including much of the range lands in the west so Interior and the various agencies of Interior are a very important part of our wild land fire management program. We work very closely with the forest service and other federal, state, local and tribal partners to make sure the right plans are in place to protect communities, to stabilizing property and to restore fire damaged landscapes across the country.

This work doesn't just happen when wildfires occur. Throughout the year our employees are working to mitigate the risk of wildfire. Our suppression resources are ready to respond rapidly and effectively. We are ready. We recognize that no one agency or department can be successful alone. Working as a team and backing each other up has become a way of life for all the fire agencies. It's part of the reason why these partnerships are a key part of my recent secretarial order on range land fire which we implemented just last month.

In fact today we're announcing another key important partnership in wild land firefighting that will help leverage key skills from former military members to assist in our wild and firefighting efforts like logistics, emergency medicine, risk mitigation and management.

The Bureau of Land Management, earlier this spring, entered into an agreement with team Rubicon to provide wild land firefighting training and certification to 400 veterans to assist our current crews as they work to fight fire this season and going forward. It's also a great place to see many of the talents that these individuals had and help them heal from some tough experiences overseas.

The first training sessions are going to begin this month here in Denver and also in San Francisco and Philadelphia then continuing next month in Seattle and Atlanta. So certainly keeping the public and firefighters safe is our top priority. No structure or natural resource is worth the loss of human life. Our goal is the same high standard every year - no serious injuries, no fatalities. We're successful when everyone returns home safely and at the end of each shift.

So I also might emphasize that we all have a role to play here. We need help from homeowners and local communities to better protect themselves from wildfire threats before the fires begin and to help lessen the risk to communities and firefighters when they respond.

It means if we live in that wild land urban interface, we've got to clear brush and trees and other flammable materials away from our homes. It means helping our neighbors and friends do the same. It's a great time for homeowners and communities to take proactive steps to minimize the risk of loss to wildfire ranging from inexpensive weekend maintenance measures to create a defensible space around homes to comprehensive actions taken on a subdivision or community scale.

Programs like Fire Wise Communities or Ready, Set, Go provide valuable information and assistance to individuals and communities to prepare for this fire season. Access to those programs can be found on the web or by calling your nearest local fire chief.

So before I turn the call over to Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, I want to reiterate the budget reforms for wild land fire that Secretary Vilsack explained earlier in his remarks.

President's budget proposal as well as pending bipartisan congressional legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded just makes good sense, especially when we're faced with higher and higher costs to fight fires during these long hot dry seasons we're experiencing. Here's an example. The firefighting suppression funds have exceeded budgeted levels at the Department of Interior in nearly half of the last 14 years.

And for us, 1% of these fires equate to 30% of fire spending. These are emergencies. They should be treated as such and do the same as we do with other emergency disaster needs. So with that, I'm going to turn the program over to US Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell who will explain the wild land fire outlook for this season. Tom.

Tom Tidwell: Thank you Secretary Jewell, Secretary Vilsack. Thank you for your support, your leadership to insure that we are being proactive to reduce the threat of wildfire to our communities, threat to our firefighters and our pilots.

And just to give a quick summary of the fire potential outlook for the rest of the season - we've been very fortunate here through the central part of the states to have above normal precipitation. It's allowed us to postpone the fire season in this part of the country. We still have an active fire season in southern Arizona and of course in California and also in Alaska where today there's a 25,000 acre fire burning.

And as we look at the rest of the summer, you'll see the interior part of the country will dry out to a normal fire season while California, Oregon, Washington and northern Idaho moving into Montana will see conditions deteriorate and we're predicting above average fire seasons.

The best way to describe this is it looks like we're set up to have a very similar fire season as we had last year, where we saw seven of the ten largest fires occur in California, Oregon and Washington so we're fortunate that we've been able to postpone the season in part of the country here to give our firefighters a little bit of a break so they can be ready for the rest of the season, but once again it looks like we're going to have another very active fire season.

And just to add to the point on the budget - last year we exceeded our appropriated fire suppression funds by $240 million and once again we're lined up to probably have to deal with that again. So once again secretaries thank you for your support, your leadership - a very serious issue for America.

Tom Vilsack: With that, we'll be happy to take questions.

Moderator: Alright. Reporters, this is a reminder to press star 1 on your phones to let us know that you want to ask a question. Our first question comes from (Bill Seybold) with USA Today.

(Bill Seybold): Yes, I wanted to get some reaction from any of the three. The House Appropriations Committee released its draft of the Interior Appropriations Committee or appropriations bill and it does not have the language that would allow for the more severe fires to be treated as disasters and I wondered what your reaction to that was and what you could do to try to get that changed.

Tom Vilsack: Well, speaking for the Forest Service, I think we're disappointed that we didn't - we didn't have the committee understand precisely what's in play here. The average between the range of costs for fires - we have a 90% chance of having to spend somewhere between 810 million and 1.62 billion. If it comes into the average about 1.2 billion, we'll again have to borrow at least $200 million from restoration and resiliency funds which is precisely the fund that reduces the risk long-term of these catastrophic and horrific fires.

Congress can't have it both ways. They can't come to us in December, January and February and articulate the need for greater restoration and more work, expanded recreational opportunities and all of the things that occur with a healthy forest when they won't give us the capacity and the resources to prevent the borrowing of funds. They cannot sustain and we cannot sustain this ever-increasing percentage of our budget going to fire suppression.

Our only hope is that we continue to hammer this message that those who are on the ground fighting these fires and understanding the risk will reinforce the message to their members of Congress and that the Senate will take a different view of this and understand what's at stake here.

This is about fewer people, instability in our funding makes it extremely difficult - extremely difficult for us to do everything that folks want us to do and that we want to do on our forest and lands. These are national treasures. We understand the significance and importance of taking good care of them for future generations. We understand the important role they play in water conservation preservation particularly in a dry area of the country.

We just can only hope that Congress finally wakes up to the fact that we are just one or two horrific fires away from having to borrow money one more time and in our case it's 10 out of the last 15 years we've had to borrow from those resources.

Sally Jewell: The only thing I'll add on behalf of Interior to what Secretary Vilsack said is that there is really good alignment I'd say on both sides of the political aisle about the importance of this long term fire fix for states where wildfire is a big issue. We are working very hard on range land fire issues in the Great Basin in particular in those states.

And I think that with the companion bills in the House and Senate that had been introduced, with governors weighing in, which we will have I'm sure, you know, we will continue to pursue legislation that's independent of the budget to allow for the wildfire cap and it's really going to be all hands on deck to continue to push this effort forward.

The president's been supportive. We've had Republicans and Democratic leadership supported. We've got a few roadblocks obviously we haven't been able to get past but we're committed to continuing to push on those.

Tom Vilsack: What's frustrating about this - and I'd add this - what's frustrating about this is it's not asking about new dollars. It's just about spending the existing resources in a slightly different way. So it's not like you're increasing the budget. You're just simply using a fund that's set aside for natural disasters and that's precisely what these are.

One of the reasons why we have catastrophic fires is because of pests and diseases that have destroyed millions of acres of timber in the western part of the United States. Most of these fires are started by lightning strikes, so it is every bit a natural disaster as a flood or a tornado or hurricane and it is incumbent upon Congress to understand the significance of that in making determinations about the budget. It's not new money. It's just spending money in a slightly different way that makes sense -- that's reasonable and rational.

Sally Jewell: And reduces the cost long term.

Tom Vilsack: Yes, it reduces the cost long term and we're not asking that they take all of the responsibility away from us. We'll fight the 98 to 99% of the fires in existing budgets during the course of the year. We understand the importance of being held accountable, but it's the 1 to 2% of catastrophic fires that become hundreds of millions of dollars of fires that we simply cannot afford. We then borrow from existing resources and we do less work and that complicates and increases the risk of fire in the future.

Moderator: Let's continue with our reporters on the line. Once again press star 1 if you want to ask a question. (Dan Elliot) with AP.

(Dan Elliot): Hi. My question is how do you define a catastrophic fire? What is a catastrophic fire and a follow-up - what parts of the country are at risk of this kind of fire?

Tom Vilsack: I'm going to have the Chief weigh in on the technical. There is a process by which we determine the funding and so, Chief, do you want to weigh in on that in terms of the technical aspects of it?

Tom Tidwell: Yes, and the bipartisan bicameral legislation that was introduced last Congress and again introduced this Congress, which basically mirrors the President's request, it sets our criteria for those types of fires that if they're, you know, close to large communities where we normally need to spend a lot of money to be able to keep the fire out of communities, it's one of the criteria and it's very specific about which fires can be, you know, included in this.

It also has a provision that if towards the end of the fire season that when we run out of money then the secretaries can determine that any additional fires will come out of this additional fund. The thing that's so important about this is that we're still going to fund, you know, 98 to 99% of the fires out of our appropriated budget. And last year, just with the Forest Service, the ten most costly fires - ten fires equaled $323 million.

Man: Out of how many?

Tom Tidwell: Out of over thousands just with the Forest Service.

Sally Jewell: Tens of thousands, yes.

Moderator: He also asked about what parts of the country are at risk.

Tom Tidwell: Well, parts right now is definitely in southern Arizona and then of course California just like it was last year. It's going to continue and then, as we move later into the season, Oregon and Washington and northern Idaho very similar to what we saw last year and once again Washington had their largest fire in the history of the state. The Carlton Complex, you know, occurred last year.

So their conditions are very similar to what they had last year so we expect to see very large fires probably at least in those three states plus an additional potential up in northern Idaho moving into western Montana.

Tom Vilsack: One additional point is that the fire season is longer. It's somewhere between 60 and 80 days longer than it has been traditionally and that is a reflection of the condition of the forest and grassland areas that extend the fire season. So not only are we fighting more fires, we're fighting them over a longer period of time during the year which again complicates the whole - the budget situation.

Moderator: Alright, reporters once again press star 1 if you'd like to ask a question. Up next Arizona public media's (Zack Ziegler).

(Zack Ziegler): Yes, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about, you know, the (unintelligible) southwest is kind of a hot bed for fire states like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado. What is it that's making the northwest a little more of the dangerous spot this year?

Tom Tidwell: Well it's a factor of the weather patterns that have occurred over the Pacific this last year that was referred to as El Nino. It's actually brought up more moisture through the southwest much earlier than we normally see but what also happens in an El Nino is that you also see much dryer conditions up in the Pacific Northwest.

So what we're seeing today, this fire season is actually just following the predictions from the weather service of what we would see, you know, throughout this year.

Tom Vilsack: The prolonged drought in California has also created risk.

Moderator: Alright. Once again reporters if you'd like to ask a question, please let us know by pressing star 1 on your touchtone pad. We don't have any other calls so any closing remarks, Secretary Vilsack, Secretary Jewell, Chief Tidwell?

Tom Vilsack: Well I just want to again acknowledge the men and women who fight these fires and the extraordinary risk that they take every single year and we owe it to them to do everything we possibly can to make sure that they have the resources and that we reduce the risk to the extent possible and we need an ally and a partner in Congress.

The sequester - some of the budget gimmicks that have been taking place really complicate the ability to protect these firefighters and to put them in a situation where they have the best chance of success putting these fires out quickly. And so I'm hopeful that this is the year that we finally crack the code, so to speak, and get the fire budgeting straightened out so that in the future we reduce the risk of these horrific fires, that we get back in the business of restoring these wonderful treasures that we have so that people and families can enjoy them for years to come.

Sally Jewell: The only thing I would add is that we're ready when fire strikes. We'll do a great job. We hope Mother Nature is good to us. She may or may not be - whether the lightning is dry or whether the lightning's wet. We have an opportunity to put veterans to work this year. We are prioritizing our landscapes in a way we never have before which is recognizing the value of range lands in addition to forested lands and I want to thank Chief Tidwell and Secretary Vilsack for their strong partnership in the range land restoration efforts as well as in fighting fires on the ground.

We're ready to go and we need everybody's help to support our programs so that we can do this in a really smart way over the long term, as Secretary Vilsack said.

Tom Tidwell: I just want to thank everyone that works together from the federal agencies, the state, the local, the county fire folks that suppress these fires. And we are making a difference with our focus on restoring the nation's forest and grasslands. Every year there's more and more examples over the work that we're doing is reducing the threat to our communities, the threat to our firefighters, to our pilots and reducing the severity of these fires to water sheds that so many communities rely on for their municipal drinking water.

But there's more work to be done and if we can get the budget fixed then we're going to be able to continue the secretary's goal to increase the pace and scale of restoring the nation's forest and grasslands. Thank you.

Moderator: Everybody, thank you for joining us for our call and that concludes the call for now.