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Wildfire fighting capacity curbed by funding cuts, officials say

Published May 14, 2013 1:49 pm

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The government is facing the possibility of yet another historic wildfire season with significantly fewer funds to pay for firefighters, equipment, fire prevention and recovery as a result of budget cuts from the sequester, officials announced Monday.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his agency, which is largely responsible for fighting monster fires along with the Interior Department, will try to manage burns with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines and by shifting money earmarked for prevention to pay for fire suppression.

"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, 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 programs 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.

During one of the worst wildfire seasons on record amid a historic drought, the USDA Forest Service ran out of money last year to pay firefighters, operate trucks and fly aircraft. The agency borrowed money from fire management budgets that help prevent fires to pay for suppression.

Given the cuts in the Forest Service's fire budget because of sequestration, and the outlook for significant fire potential in much of the West, that process could play out again, a USDA spokesman said.

"If the U.S. Forest Service exhausts funding . . . for fire suppression in 2013, as it did in 2012, it will be necessary for the agency to transfer funds from other programs to cover fire suppression costs," said the spokesman, Larry Chambers.

That includes taking funds from the hazardous-fuels-reduction program, which, among other things, hires contractors to remove combustible material that help fires burn bigger and brighter.

Nearly 600 million acres of public lands "are in significant need of restoration" - tree thinning and controlled burnings to counter insects and disease and drought that turn wildfires into monsters that take weeks to tame.

If it comes down to a firefight, the Forest Service and Interior will have 10,000 personnel, 5,000 fewer than last season, and 900 trucks to support them, down from 950.

Over the past 15 years, the nation has experienced its 12 hottest years on record. And since 2000, fires have burned bigger than ever. More than 96,300 fires burned more than 6 million acres in 1996 during one of the worst fire seasons in the 1990s. Last year, about 67,700 fires burned more than 9 million acres. The 2012 season was second to one six years earlier that burned nearly 10 million acres, but that year, 2006, it took about 30,000 more fires to scorch that much land.

"The last decade there have been 57 percent more acres burned than the previous four decades average," said Jon Schwedler, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program.

"It was fairly consistent before, but starting in 2000 things started getting hot and burning a lot more," Schwedler said.

This year there is concern in the West after dry and warm conditions quickly reduced the winter snowpack that built up in Oregon and the Great Basin, which includes Nevada and Utah, and across the southern Rocky Mountains including Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, according to a report by the National Interagency Fire Center.

"In Boise . . . fire is very much on people's minds, as it is throughout the Western United States," Jewell said.