During a visit with Gov. Gavin Newsom to the site of the massive 2020 August Complex fire, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised the federal government would send more resources to California, and other states combating an increased threat to prevent catastrophic fires.

“We have to significantly beef up our capacity,” Vilsack said. “I pledge to you, and commit to you, that will happen.” He promised more boots on the ground, better pay for firefighters and more funding for forest management both to prevent fires and to restore and reforest areas after they’ve burned. He said he is confident all of this can happen because the major infrastructure bill Congress is working on provides a “down payment” for these investments. The budget reconciliation bill, another Biden administration priority, “will also dedicate resources to greater resiliency in this national treasure that we have in our forest system.”

Vilsack said years of underfunding has led to the need for significant federal investment now. In the past, he said “we have tried to do this job on the cheap” by doing small amounts of forest management and fire suppression even as the greater need to fight wildland fires has led to moving money out of the management and recreation part of the Forest Service budget. “This has caught up to us, which is why we have an extraordinary number of catastrophic fires.”

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Vilsack said when he was recently in Colorado, he was told forest management costs $1400 per acre versus a $50,000 per acre price tag for firefighting that can be necessary when forests are not adequately managed. “I wasn’t great at math,” Vilsack joked, “but I was good enough to know that’s not a great ratio.”

Newsom and other western governors met with federal officials last week to express their concerns over the current drought and wildfire season. Vilsack told Newsom his concerns, including the need for more firefighting aircraft, had reached the Secretary’s desk. But the challenge, Vilsack said, is not just identifying available aircraft but also deploying appropriate personnel to operate them. He said USDA is working with the Department of Defense to ensure the right people are available for those jobs.

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