On June 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized a Fire Management Assistance Grant to help pay for fighting the Pack Creek Fire in the La Sal Mountains above Moab. The grant means that FEMA can pay 75% of the state of Utah’s firefighting costs, though that’s only a fraction of the total cost of the fire.

According to Kait Webb, prevention and fire communications coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, the current total cost estimate for the Pack Creek Fire is $10.1. Federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service are responsible for much of that cost; Utah is responsible for about 1.6%, a figure determined by how many acres of state-owned land were impacted by the fire.

The total grant amount will not be determined until future analysis.

“The amount the State will be able to be reimbursed is dynamic until we consolidate the entire 2021 season next year,” said Webb. “The cost estimates are not complete or final. There is potential for about a million in reimbursement for this incident in about four years.”

Though the bulk of expenses for fires on public lands are often paid by federal agencies, the state of Utah has already spent about $36 million on wildfires this year. [See “‘It’s outrageous’ on page X of this edition.” -ed.]

FEMA has approved nine FMAGs across the country so far in 2021, including one for the Mammoth Fire which threatened homes in Panguitch, Utah in June. These grants are part of a promise from President Joe Biden to increase support for wildland firefighters and for western states confronting longer and more severe fire seasons each year. His strategies include increasing pay for federal wildland firefighters, developing technology to help catch fires sooner, and allocating money for preventative work.

Longer, more intense

“This is becoming a regular cycle, and we know it’s getting worse,” said Biden at a June 30 conference on wildfires with cabinet members and governors from western states, including Utah Governor Spencer Cox. “In fact, the threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been.”

Participants at the conference discussed the “heat dome” that has brought record high temperatures to the northwest and the extreme drought in the southwest that is leaving water bodies across the region low. Utah is in a state of emergency due to extreme drought.

Biden emphasized that climate change is driving the extreme heat and prolonged drought that are lengthening and intensifying fire seasons each year, and he pledged to take the threat seriously.

Biden has a history of advocating for fire and emergency responders. He served for years as the chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, has sponsored fire-related legislation, and personally thanks firefighters for responding during personal emergencies in his own life, such as when his home was struck by lightning in 2005 and firefighters arrived in time to prevent its destruction. The June 30 conference was the first in what will be an annual briefing, Biden said, on the upcoming wildfire season, similar to an already-established annual presidential briefing on the hurricane season.

Support for firefighters

“First, we’re going to make sure that we have enough firefighters on call who are trained, equipped, and ready to respond for all this fire season,” he said. “And we’re going to pay them.”

Biden was dismayed to learn, he said, that some federal firefighters make less than $13 an hour.

“That’s unacceptable to me,” Biden said. In a June 30 fact sheet published by the White House, the Biden administration said it will ensure federal firefighters make at least $15 an hour this year, and will also give a 10% retention incentive to permanent firefighters up to a GS-9 level. That refers to the General Schedule of pay rates for federal employees: a GS-9 makes between $22.08 and $28.70 per hour. The fact sheet also said Biden will work with Congress on further reforms for compensation, benefit, and work-life balance for federal wildland firefighters.

“We’ve made sure seasonal firefighters can stay on the job, as long as they are needed this year, by allowing them to work beyond their term,” Biden went on at the June 30 conference. Seasonal federal employees are restricted to 1039 hours in a year, but as Biden pointed out, that doesn’t allow those employees to work for the duration of wildfire season. The federal Office of Personnel Management has approved an exemption to extend wildland firefighters to work beyond those seasonal terms.

Land management agencies have also committed to hiring more employees and converting hundreds of seasonal positions to permanent positions. The Department of the Interior and the United States Forest Service employ over 15,000 primary-duty firefighters, and another 13,000 employees who can be activated to support wildland firefighting. Those agencies can also call on about 11,000 “administratively determined” personnel from outside their agencies to help fight wildfires. Those are trained firefighters who may not work for a land management agency, but can respond to requests for assistance.

Congress has also funded training and equipment for the National Guard to prepare to help fight wildfires, and the Department of Defense will train and equip 400 of its military personnel to fight wildfires.

Technology

“NOAA has satellite technology that is able to see from space when new fires start, while they’re still small, even as small as the size of your dining room table,” Biden said, referring to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If firefighters can locate ignitions while they’re still small, they have a better chance of putting those fires out.

The White House fact sheet noted other technologies being developed by federal agencies. In June, the Department of Homeland Security announced new prototype devices for early wildfire detection, and the Department of Energy is developing sensors and patches to help prevent energy infrastructure failures that could spark fires. Biden’s Presidential Budget Request proposes $15 million for improved fire weather activities and proposes a new NASA program to develop tools to use satellite data to inform wildfire management.

The Environmental Protection Agency monitors smoke levels and publishes information on air quality at fire.airnow.gov. (There are few air quality monitors in Southeast Utah mapped on the site, and the ones that are identified in the area, as noted in a disclaimer, are “low-cost” and give “unknown performance.” They are provided by PurpleAir, a small air monitoring network company.) The EPA also offers a “vehicle add-on mobile monitoring system” which is used to collect on-the-ground data about smoke and air quality. The agency is also looking at filtration devices to reduce harm from smoke, and piloting a project with western states to use schools as clean air shelters and cooling centers during heat and smoke events.

Prevention

“This is an area where investing in prevention and preparation today is going to deliver invaluable returns tomorrow,” Biden told western governors, asking what those state leaders need from the federal government to support firefighting. Biden’s Presidential Budget proposes spending more than $30 billion to support wildfire management in fiscal year 2022, including a 62% increase in funding for hazardous fuel removal to prevent catastrophic fires.

California Governor Gavin Newsom thanked the president and said the National Guard has been key in recent years in fighting wildfires in California.

“This should be universal practice nationwide,” Newsom said. “It’s incredibly helpful.” He also thanked the president for his serious engagement with the issues of wildfires and climate change.

“We were debating raking policies, literally debating raking policies in this country in the last few years,” said Newsom, contrasting Biden’s approach with remarks made by former president Donald Trump in response to catastrophic wildfires in California.

Newsom also echoed other meeting participants’ emphasis on the role of climate change.

“With due respect to those that don’t believe in science, you’ve got to believe your own damn eyes—observed evidence,” he said. “When you look at that thermometer—119 degrees up north, we were 123 down in Palm Springs two days ago… There’s no Republican thermometer, no Democratic thermometer. These realities are here with us today.”

This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aims to inform readers across the state.