Fire Politics (Groundhog Day Edition)

Again from Groundhog Day (1993), with Bill Murray (Phil the weatherman) and Phil (the groundhog).
Again from Groundhog Day (1993), with Bill Murray (Phil the weatherman) and Phil (the groundhog).

The IMDB entry blurb for the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” offers this hope for escaping the maelstrom: “A self-absorbed narcissistic weatherman finds himself in a time loop on Groundhog Day, and the day keeps repeating itself until he it’s good.”

Thirty years of film history later, in our wildfire world we might seem stuck like weatherman Phil, repeating the day (and our fire processes) until we get it right. However, a number of recent releases may suggest some key transitions.

If you have some time (as meteorologist Phil did), you could explore the documents brought into play. The most concise may be the “Wildfire Emergency Act of 2023” – you can track it down at, but for now the full text is at sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s site .

The legislation introduced on the last day of January 2023 builds on the 2021 law of the same name (should they just have waited for Groundhog Day?), which has not progressed in 2021 but the framework and emergency elements have reappeared in this new design of law. The legislation has bipartisan support, with Republican Senator from Montana Steve Daines joining three Democrats: sponsor Feinstein and co-sponsoring Senators Alex Padilla of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

While the bill is framed as a response to wildfires and the climate emergency, many of the proposals reflect the rise of the “cohesive strategy” as a central vision for firefighting initiatives. As Wyden states, “Tackling the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the West requires a comprehensive approach. That means making essential upgrades to keep the lights on when a disaster strikes and providing communities with the firefighting workforce and latest technology needed to keep wildfires under control. Our bill also prioritizes mitigation work now to prevent wildfires from escalating into megafires that destroy lives and property. The climate crisis is here and the West needs more support.”

And Feinstein says the across-the-board approach: “Every level of government and the private sector needs to get involved in this fight, and this bill will go a long way in helping us prepare for a hotter, drier future.”

What a region-specific, bottom-up bill could actually produce, if many committee meetings, votes, and budget discussions welded it into law, could include both specified and unspecified funds to accomplish key transitions. The press release offers a summary, with proposed commitments to landscape-scale forest restoration, community-level resilience, and increased emphasis and new initiatives on applied sensing technology and workforce development.

A change of note: in language the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is to be consulted on one or more Preposed Fire Training Centers in any State wholly located west of the 100th meridian. This will offer a fundamental expansion and fire regime diversification of the single national center’s essential work in Florida, but equally noteworthy is that JFSP still exists and could play a key role in this initiative – since not so long ago the people had to argue to keep JFSP funded.

What may be missing are elements of national workforce change (more in a moment) and a lack of “moonshot” glitter in both funding and unspecified technology initiatives. But What’s Here promises to expand recent initiatives to more stakeholders. If adopted, we could see at least one prescribed fire training center identified within a year later, and funding for forest restoration and fire training centers across the West (with grants to states, academic institutions, and professional organizations that could expedite the launch). In addition, up to 20 100,000-acre landscapes will use $250 million “to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and fire resilience projects.” That’s $125 per acre for about 2 million acres. Which promises a great job, commensurate with the “true cost of fire” (reported here by Bill Gabbert in 2020), which Prof. Ernesto Alvarado: “I think we should focus more on human losses.” These funds will align with $50 million for community grants and $13,000 per low-income family for fireproof retrofits.


Challenges for the wildland fire workforce are increasing due in large part to the fire regime changes that led to the Wildfire Emergency Act, but the pace of federal administrative change may not be increasing as fast as wildfires. And that is where our policy change now lies, fueled by public and lawmaker concerns and the push of firefighter advocates such as Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFF).

This is the background to two recent letters that seek to amplify and rationalize the changes. One, sent Jan. 18 by a bipartisan group of seven Western senators to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), calls for clarifications and corrections to federal housing guidelines that undermine the recruitment and retention of firefighters. For example: if your roommate moves out (which you usually can’t handle), you pay his part of the rent. support for the correction of housing inequalities. In addition to changes to the bunkhouse and remote housing formulas for determining the rent. In their request for a briefing on OMB Circular A-45R, the Senators note that “Federal wild firefighters have a difficult and dangerous job, and it is the responsibility of the federal government to support them in that job.”


The second letter, from GRWFF and NFFF to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), takes a broader focus and goes further – but essentially, even existentially – deep in regards to the November 2022 GAO report, “Wildland Fire: Barriers to Recruitment and Retention of Federal Wildland Firefighters,” which identified some but not all of the barriers and reforms identified by groups such as GRWFF and NFFF.

There is much in the letter that will shape next year’s dialogues (which we will follow), but a good place to start now is the direct request to the GAO towards the closing of the letter:
“Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and NFFE deeply appreciate the GAO’s initial report. Considering its blind spots, however, we respectfully request a second investigation into these barriers and a second report, incorporating input from a significant number of current and former firefighters – and prioritizing the wisdom of those occupying marginalized identities.

Among many questions and suggestions regarding pay, housing, equity, work-life balance, retirement (covering most of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of which are not currently supported) , the letter points out that “the elephant in the room is safety and health: what our firefighters risk every day. Although federal wild firefighters are at increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, PTSD, and traumatic injuries, these are not discussed in the GAO report.The federal government does not recognize a correlation between environmental exposures such as smoke from wildfires and the incidence of cancer or cardiovascular disease.More than two dozen firefighters died in 2022 on duty fighting fires. These risks are not considered when determining firefighter pay. Potential recruits and veteran firefighters oppose They are on low pay for work that could injure or kill them and take years of their lives. Although federal wild firefighters may spend over 1,000 hours each fire season exposed to these hazards, there is no formal education program on either dangerous consequences or mitigation strategies for employees.

For more details, see the January 25 letter and the set of reforms proposed by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and the NFFF in 2022.


For the record, Phil reportedly saw his shadow today and his managers anticipate another six weeks of winter. To my knowledge, few firefighters base their spring-mandated firefighting plans on Punxsutawney Phil seeing a shadow of him. Yet we of the fire profession can lay claim to a key functional connection: This rodent-centric celebration has roots in goodbye-winter traditions such as Candelmas (and her hedgehog) and the Irish/Celtic celebration of St. (née goddess) Bridget, all celebrated with bonfires and candles. So light a fire as winter passes, but keep in mind that yesterday’s Fire Outlook predicts a softer start to fire season, which could at least mean we’re not likely to see shadows from the years’ first active fire seasons previous.

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