The Washington Post published an article on May 13 about the impact the Sequester cuts will have on the Interior and Agriculture Departments’ budgets, specific to funding firefighters and equipment for the upcoming wildfire season. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the article that his agency would be trying to manage fires with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines, using money normally used for funding prevention programs.
“I hope we can get through this fire season without any fatalities,” Vilsack said.
“When fires burn uncontrolled in our nation’s wildlands, it means a loss of homes, businesses . . . and all too often lives,” said Ernest Mitchell Jr., the U.S. fire administrator who joined Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a news conference in Boise, Idaho.
The sequester cut more than $115 million from the federal wildland fire program budget, USDA officials have said, at a time when the nation continues to face abnormally dry conditions, particularly in the West, as a result of climate change.
While we are never in favor of budget cuts that endanger the lives of those fighting fires, or those whose lives are impacted by wildland fires, we see this as an opportune time to re-think our fire suppression strategy.
When it comes to protecting structures threatened by wildland fire, we encourage agencies to shift their strategy away from the old water-supported engine model to a more nimble, and effective compressed air foam system (CAFS) model. Here’s why:
- The average engine can deploy 600 gallons of water or 2,400 gallons of air aspirated foam against a fire before it has to be refilled. A CAF system, like the TRI-MAX 200 Super-CAF has the ability to produce up to 4,000 gallons of foam per tank load. The Tri-Max CAF system’s foam generates smaller bubbles that cling to the surface sprayed and lasts many times longer than air aspirated foam, thus fewer trucks are needed.
- A fire engine typically costs anywhere from $150,000 – $250,000 to purchase. It also requires more manpower to staff than the 1-ton truck that can carry our 200 gallon unit (which typically costs from $8,000 to $28,000 – a fraction of the cost of an engine), and be deployed by a driver and one additional firefighter. A volunteer firefighter could conceivably carry a unit like this in his or her own truck as needed.
- Because of its reduced size and turning radius, a 1-ton truck would be able to protect structures in more remote areas that a larger engine may not be able to access due to its size.
At a time when we’re looking at wildland fire seasons that are growing more severe with each coming year, combined with an ever-shrinking funding source at all levels of government to combat those blazes, we need, as a fire community, to make smarter choices about how we attack and suppress those fires.
Tradition is important, but finding solutions that require less manpower, less maintenance, and increase our overall firefighting capacity for fewer budget dollars isn’t just a good idea, it’s a critical necessity.