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Sat., June 15, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Budget cuts stoke danger as season for fires nears

The Northwest may soon find out whether the across-the-board sequester of federal agency budgets will hold harmless the region’s forests.

Last month, secretaries Tom Vilsack of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Sally Jewell of the U.S. Department of Interior were at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Their message: Sequester reductions of 5 percent will deprive the Forest Service of 500 firefighters and 50 engines to confront blazes like those in Colorado, which as of midafternoon Friday had consumed 379 homes and 16,000 acres.

Although the remaining resources are substantial – 13,000 firefighters and 1,600 engines, plus air tankers – it may take all that and more if the fire season plays out as predicted in the latest forecast for the West.

The June 1 report from the fire center anticipated above-normal potential for big fires from California eastward and northward into – southern Colorado.

In July, the threat will progress into western Idaho and southwestern Washington. Spared, at least for now, are most of Washington and North Idaho, where snowpacks continued to accumulate in some mountain areas, and cool temperatures persisted.

But Spokane rain gauges are 3 inches below normal so far this year. Hot weather and July 4 fireworks foolishness lie ahead. The peak of the Inland Northwest’s fire season is weeks away.

While federal resources have been cut back, the Washington Department of Natural Resources should have the money it needs unless lawmakers blow through the July 1 start of the fiscal year. The Senate budget contains $33.9 million in supplemental firefighting funding, which would fully fund the department request made in October. The House would appropriate $31.9 million.

But fighting fires, like treating disease, often indicates a failure to take prevention measures.

As Colorado’s massive fires of the last two years have demonstrated anew, firefighting has become more complicated and expensive in subdivisions developed within forests where fires are a fact of life. Although communities like Colorado Springs have adopted fire codes intended to minimize fire danger, existing structures and those outside city limits are vulnerable if homeowners do not clear a defensible space around their properties.

More fires in the forest may be an ongoing threat if higher temperatures increase the incidence and persistence of drought. Along coastal areas, the danger may be the recurrence of storms like Sandy, and the devastation caused on the Northeast coast. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week unveiled proposed building code upgrades and a $20 billion system of flood barriers to protect low-lying areas.

Much of the United States, coastal and inland, must engage in that same level of forward thinking; not the kind that created the sequester. The West is at risk right now. Maybe relying on contractors in an emergency, as Jewell suggested, will work out.

Maybe it won’t.

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