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Posts tagged: Tom Vilsack

With budget cuts hitting firefighting efforts, Jewell calls on folks to get ‘fire-wise’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s visit by the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Agriculture to NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where the two said sequestration and other federal budget cuts will hit hard just as a “difficult” fire season looms for the nation.

New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on citizens and communities to be “fire-wise” and take steps to protect their homes, particularly those in or near the woods or wildlands, from burning in a wildfire. “We as private citizens … play an important role,” she said, “especially in these areas where we want to live, have our cabins up in the mountains, and they are oftentimes in harm’s way.” Jewell said people need to create defensible space around homes or cabins, clear brush, trees and flammable materials, and help their neighbors do the same. “I really encourage you to do that,” she said.

This year’s fire season already has seen 13,000 fires start, but that’s actually a low number – the lowest in the last 10 years. That’s mainly because there’s been ample rain and snow across the eastern United States, limiting the fires that otherwise would normally have ignited by now in the Southeast.

But this year is expected to see above-normal risk in parts of the west, particularly the southwest, due to precipitation that’s run far below normal. Southern California has gotten only a quarter of its normal precipitation so far this year. NIFC officials said the wildfire season in West Coast states is expected to start a month earlier than normal this year as a result; fires already have been burning in southern California and even in southern Idaho.

Budget cuts hit as ‘difficult’ fire season looms

With a “difficult” fire season looming, firefighters are facing budget cuts that will result in 500 fewer firefighters for the Forest Service alone and 50 fewer engines available, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this morning in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We’re going to be faced obviously with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that,” he said. “The resources are limited. Our budgets have obviously been constrained.”

Other agencies also are facing cuts. New Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured NIFC yesterday and today, said, “We will fight the fires and we will do them safely, but the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. … What you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscapes for the future.” That means things like replanting and efforts to reduce hazardous fuels will suffer. “If we have a really tough season, we … may bring in more contract resources,” Jewell said. “We’ll have to take it out of other parts of our budget which are also struggling. We may be making decisions in the short run to take care of fires but in the long run not setting ourselves up for success.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said if catastrophic fires are burning in August and sufficient resources aren’t available, he believes Congress would come through with emergency funding. Vilsack responded with a chuckle, “You get that down? Can you send that to me?

Vilsack said in addition to the 5 percent sequestration cut that the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture took, “Congress added on that another 2 percent.” Making those cuts this far into the fiscal year, he said, means they cut “in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.”

Top federal officials on fire season: Get ready

The wildfire season has barely begun, and already hundreds of homes have burned in Colorado and 66 homes in southern Idaho were destroyed over the weekend. The U.S. secretaries of homeland security and agriculture came to Boise on Tuesday to check in with national fire managers, after a stop in Colorado to inspect damage, and they brought a message: Get ready. The fire season spreads from south to north, and the damage already seen in the southern parts of the west will be spreading to the northern parts of the Rocky Mountain west.

“Everyone should be concerned, everybody should be preparing, preparing as best we can,” said Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary and former governor of Arizona. “It does portend to be a long, hot fire season in the West. We've had them before, we'll have them again. This one has gotten off to a particularly tough start.” She urged property owners to clear combustible materials away from structures and create “defensible space” around homes. “What we saw in Colorado was … when defensible space is created, our firefighters have a much better chance of saving a home or a business,” she said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed that. “We did see today a circumstance where a home was completely obliterated, and next to it there were two homes that weren't touched.” Said Napolitano, “We have an opportunity now as we start seeing some rains and moisture coming into the southern part of the West, to help those in the northern part get ready.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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