Reducing Wildfires through Better Utility Pole Inspections

They can pop up almost anywhere.

“They” are wildfires, which can result in loss of human life and lead to billions of dollars of property damage every year in the United States.

Hundreds of failures in electrical utility poles across the nation are one of the leading causes of these disasters. In Idaho alone, nearly 300 wildfires have been caused by utility pole failures in the past 15 years – an average of 20 wildfires every year.

Electrical utility pole failure is one of the leading causes of wildfires nationwide. The sheer number of poles involved makes regular inspections challenging – but the Forest Products Lab is finding new ways to carry out pole inspections quickly and easily. (Forest Service photo)
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Omnibus Includes Fire Funding Fix for U.S. Forest Service

The following is a press release from USDA:

(Washington, D.C., March 23, 2018) – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today expressed his appreciation for the work of Congress to find a bipartisan fix for the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded for fighting wildfires. Secretary Perdue had advocated for the change since taking office in April 2017. Congress included the solution in the FY 2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which has been signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.

“The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue,” said Secretary Perdue. “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons. I thank Congressional leaders, with whom I’ve frequently discussed this issue.”

The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from FY2020 through FY2027. Beginning in FY2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to USDA and the Department of the Interior. The budget authority increases by $100 million each year, ending at $2.95 billion in new budget authority by FY2027. For the duration of the 8-year fix, the fire suppression account will be funded at the FY 2015 President’s Budget request – $1.011 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the Secretary of Agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures. The omnibus includes a 2-year extension of Secure Rural Schools, providing provide rural counties approximately $200 million more per year. It also provides Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization. The legislation also includes seven important forest management reforms, including:

  • Categorical Exclusion for Wildfire Resilience Projects
  • Healthy Forest Restoration Act inclusion of Fire and Fuel Breaks
  • 20-year Stewardship contracts
  • Cottonwood Reform
  • Fire Hazard Mapping Initiative
  • Fuels Management for Protection of Electric Transmission Lines
  • Good Neighbor Authority Road Amendment

Until the funding solution was achieved, the fire suppression portion of the USFS budget was funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall USFS budget remained relatively flat. Because fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average kept rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. This increase forced the agency to take funds from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs. In addition, hunting, fishing, and other recreational programs were cut to cover the costs of fire suppression.


Last year, wildland fire suppression costs exceeded $2.5 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. The USFS confronted wildland fires last summer that started in the Southeast and continued through the year in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest. At peak season, more than 28,000 personnel were dispatched to fires, along with aircraft and other emergency response resources. Since taking office, Secretary Perdue has worked diligently to address the issue and ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need.

  • September 8, 2017: Secretary Perdue Calls on Congress to Fix Forest Service Fire Funding Problem
  • September 14, 2017: Secretary Perdue Renews Call for Congress to Fix “Fire Borrowing” Problem after Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion
  • September 26, 2017: Secretary Perdue Hosts U.S. Senators for 2017 Fire Briefing
  • November 1, 2017: Secretary Perdue Issues Statement on House Passage of Resilient Federal Forests Act
  • In 2017, Secretary Perdue traveled to multiple areas of the country besieged by wildfires to assess damage, and to discuss the fire funding issue at various roundtables:
    • Secretary Perdue visited Montana with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke near the end of August 2017, and received an assessment from Forest Service personnel on the ground at the Lolo Peak Fire.
    • In October 2017, Secretary Perdue visited the Cherokee National Forest to learn of damage caused by wildfires in 2016 and discuss the fire funding issue at a roundtable with USFS employees.
    • Last month, Secretary Perdue discussed the 2017 wildfire season while touring damage from the Creek Fire , that ravaged Los Angeles County last December.


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FPL’s Fire Safety Team Recognized: FPL's Length of Service Ceremony Remembers this Special Recognition

Following up on yesterday’s post about fire safety, Lab Notes is pleased to announce a special recognition award mentioned at FPL’s length of service award ceremony today.

FPL’s Fire Safety team in FPL’s Durability and Wood Protection Research unit was recognized by the Greater Madison Federal Agency Association (GMFAA) for building effective relationships in and out of the Forest Service. Team members include Robert White (deceased), Mark Dietenberger, Laura Hasburgh, Keith Bourne, and Charles Boardman. The team endured losses over the past few years: reductions in staff and research funding, disruption to research from decommissioned facilities, and most importantly, the recent, sudden loss of their group’s leader, Robert White.


Dr. Robert White died peacefully on March 19, 2014, while at work.

Through all this adversity, the team has been productive, including contributing to codes and standards and software programs that predict residential fire damage. Many thanks to this team of researchers who work hard to keep the public safer.

All Hands on Deck to Lessen Wildland Fire Damage

Because wildland fires pose a significant societal threat, it is important to understand how to mitigate their damage. Lives and structures are at risk, particularly in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where homes are constructed near or among areas prone to these fires.

Testing decking materials in FPL's Fire Test Lab.

Testing decking materials in FPL’s Fire Test Lab.

The Forest Products Laboratory’s Mark Dietenberger, a research general engineer, and Laura Hasburgh, a fire protection engineer, are studying a common scenario that results in property loss due to these fires in the WUI: ignition of attached wood decks.

A recently posted Research in Progress summary titled Fire Performance of Exterior Wood Decks in Wildland-Urban Interface explains how FPL and the American Wood Council (AWC) are working together to provide mitigation strategies that will reduce wildfire threats to structures and therefore preserve the marketability of wood decks.

The objectives of the research are threefold:

  • provide the AWC with a technical assessment of the fire performance of decking when subjected to relevant fire exposure
  • assess the related fire test methodologies using state-of-the-art flammability facilities
  • identify options for policy decisions pertaining to prescriptive regulations

This project began in January 2014 and will continue for three years, with an annual report compiled each July.

Woody Biomass Utilization Grant program a success

The Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon announced the release of a new report. The Impacts of the Woody Biomass Utilization Grant Program in Eastern Oregon and Eastern Arizona evaluates the value of the USDA Forest Service’s Woody Biomass Utilization Grant program in eastern Oregon and eastern Arizona. These areas, according to the University of Oregon, “have extensive public lands, high wildfire risk, and limited biomass businesses.”

Even small investments in woody biomass utilization can have substantial impacts.

Even small investments in woody biomass utilization can have substantial impacts.

The authors (Emily Jane Davis, Anne Mottek Lucas, Yeon-Su Kim, Cassandra Moseley, Max Nielsen-Pincus, and Ted Bilek) analyzed the program’s effects on enterprise and industry capacity, state economies, and acres treated and green tons removed. According to the report released today, “This relatively small ($5 million authorized nationwide annually) program’s most clear accomplishments were its significant contributions to regional biomass processing capacity, which occurred despite challenging market and economic conditions.”

They concluded, “Given the complexities of public land management and associated business development, strategies such as the Woody Biomass Utilization Grant program are critical to increasing biomass utilization, but are likely to achieve greater outcomes when incorporated with other tools to improve federal agency and stakeholder capacity, active land management, and long-term industry sustainability.”

In 2013 the U.S. Forest Service awarded nearly $2.5 million in grants to 10 small businesses and community groups across the United States. Administered by the FPL Forest Products Marketing Unit, the biomass utilization grants support renewable wood-to-energy projects and expand regional economies through rural development and job creation.