Fewer firefighers, less wildfire fuels treatments and less post-fire rehab
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The federal budget crunch means firefighters will have to do more with less this summer, federal officials said this week. Because of the sequester, the Forest Service will not fill 500 firefighting positions and will make do with 50 less engines on the ground.
“We are facing another dangerous wildfire season. We are prepared; we’re not as funded as we might be about 5 years from now, so teamwork is really critical to what we have to do,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, speaking Monday at a briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise Idaho.
In particular, parts of the West are facing another challenging fire season, with greatest potential threats in the Pacific Coast states and into the interior northwest, including Idaho and southwest Montana, according to the center’s predictive services team.
This year’s wildfire season has started slowly in the East due to regular rains, but the pace will pick up this summer in the West, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“As of May 3, we’re down from last year … But but we should not be lulled into a false sense of security about our upcoming fire season. We’ve had some serious drought in 2012 and we are preparing for and expecting a challenging season,” Vilsack said, adding that the Forest Service will have about 13,000 firefighter on board to be prepared.
Vilsack said continued regional drought, combined with beetle-killed forests, set the stage for potentially disastrous conflagrations.
Both Vilsack and Jewell said federal agencies will do everything they can to fight fires, in some cases scavenging from other budget categories to find the money. And that means other areas related to wildfires will suffer — including preventive efforts to treat fuels.
“We have 45 million acres requiring treatment. With restrained budgets, we’re doing everything we can, but the reality is both departments are facing challenging budgets,” he said, explaining that this year’s Department of Agriculture Budget is $1 billion less than than just a few years ago.
“The sequester clearly has an impact because of the way it’s structured … There’s no question; there will fewer acres treated, fewer firefighters and engines,” he said. “We think there are much better ways to budget for fires. There should be some capacity to tap into emergency funds.”
Post-fire rehabilitation, critical to protecting watersheds after a fire, will also suffer, Jewell said.
“That’s one of the consequences of taking resources for suppression,” she said. “We will fight the fires, but ability to pre-treat is significantly affected.”
Vilsack and Jewell also urged the public to do their part to help prevent wildfires while preparing for fire season, noting that most wildfires are human-caused. They urged residents of the more than 70,000 communities at risk from wildfires to take proactive steps and improve safety by developing community wildfire protection plans.