Feds say they are ready for this summer's 'above average' fire season

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 9, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced Tuesday that this summer's fire season will be “above average.” Not only will it be hotter and longer than the norm, but the Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) say they have better strategies for fighting wildland fires.

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“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup, insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America's forests,” Vilsack said at a press conference held in Denver, Colorado. “Together we are working to ensure that we have the workforce, equipment, and interagency coordination necessary to respond safely and effectively to increasingly severe wildfire seasons.”

Vilsack said FS will have 10,000 firefighters, 21 next generation and legacy air tankers and additional aviation assets to stop the spread of wildfires this year. Currently, FS stops 98 percent of fires on initial attack and the agency has fought 23,000 wildfires already this season, he added.

Jewell said her department would contribute to the fight through several partnerships. First, the veteran-based organization Team Rubicon will provide 400 veterans to assist in wildland firefighting efforts. According to USDA, nearly 28,000 Team Rubicon members have been deployed across the globe to help respond to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, typhoons and other disasters and are prepared to partner with the Interior Department.

Another 3,200 firefighter and 1,200 support personnel will be provided by BLM, in addition to 700 engines and 130 pieces of heavy equipment. The agency will also be contributing $500,000 in additional resources to coordinate training and preparedness for Rural Fire Protection Associations and volunteer fire departments to assist in fighting rangeland fires.

“Partnerships and collaborative planning to respond to wildfire are the foundation for effective firefighting,” Jewell said. “As we approach what could be a tough fire season across the West, we're doing all we can to ensure that communities are stepping up to be fire-wise and that we have the resources in place to mobilize quickly when fires start.”

The Interior Department released its new strategy for preventing wildfires in May, which targets fire prevention in sagebrush and other native and productive landscapes in the West, where many threatened species like the greater sage-grouse are found. The plan also makes recommendations for increased fire fighting training in rural communities and for positioning fire management resources for faster rangeland fire response.

During the press conference, both Vilsack and Jewell talked about the importance of ending fire-borrowing, the process in which BLM and FS “borrow” funds appropriated to other programs to suppress wildfires.

There is a 90 percent chance that this year's fire suppression efforts will cost the FS between $810 million and $1.62 billion and the DOI between $281 million and $475 billion, Vilsack said. The high end of both cost projections exceed the budget authority of both agencies, which is about $1 billion for FS and $384 million for the Interior, according to USDA.

Creating a new pool of resources, specifically for fighting catastrophic fires - defined as fires within the top 1 or 2 percentile of severity - “is not (appropriating) new money, it's just spending the money in a slightly different way that makes sense, that is reasonable and rational,” Vilsack said.

“It is incumbent upon Congress to understand the significance of that,” he argued. Catastrophic fires end up costing the departments hundreds of millions of dollars and “we do less work (due to borrowing) and it complicates and increases the risk of fire in the future,” he said.

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