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Federal fire agencies face budget cuts

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Jim Risch speak in Boise on Monday. (Associated Press)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Jim Risch speak in Boise on Monday. (Associated Press)

BOISE – With a “difficult” fire season looming, across-the-board budget cuts are now hitting federal firefighting agencies. The result: There will be hundreds fewer firefighters deployed to battle wildfires across the nation this year.

“We’re going to be faced obviously with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a Monday visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where nationwide wildfire efforts are coordinated. “The resources are limited. Our budgets have obviously been constrained.”

The Forest Service alone will have 500 fewer firefighters this year than last year, and 50 fewer engines, Vilsack said.

Other agencies also are facing cuts, from the Bureau of Land Management to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who toured NIFC on Sunday and Monday, 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.

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 southeastern United States.

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 received 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.

The Inland Northwest, including the North Idaho Panhandle and much of Eastern Washington, is likely in for a normal fire season, with the edge of the above-normal risk extending only as far north as Yakima and north-central Idaho.

“If we have a really tough season, we’ll fight the fires, but we may bring in more contract resources, and it’s actually a less efficient use of government money. It’ll cost us more in the end,” 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.”

Agencies like the Forest Service are facing a 5 percent across-the-board cut from sequestration, Vilsack said, along with another 2.6 percent budget cut.

Making those cuts this far into the fiscal year, he said, means cutting “in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.”

Jewell, who started in her post five weeks ago after serving as the president and CEO of Seattle-based outdoor equipment and clothing retailer REI Inc., said: “Sequestration as a way to address the budget issue is not something I think anybody intended, but it is across the board, by line item, and therefore we don’t have the flexibility.”

U.S. 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.

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