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As wildfire season looms, sequester cuts firefighters

May. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Wildfires Grow In The Bone Dry Forests North Of Lo
A Forest Service firefighter walks on a fire break line as the 2009 Station Fire burns in the Angeles National Forest in California. (Kevork Djansezian//Getty Images)
U.S. Forest Service firefighter Nick Mendoza moves out of a remote area of Julian, Calif., as the 'Cedar Fire' continues to burn out of control in 2003. / Bob Riha Jr./USA Today

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The sequester will cost the Forest Service about 500 firefighters and 50 fire engines this year, even as the agency expects another rough season of drought-fueled wildfires.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Forest Service usually has about 10,500 permanent and seasonal firefighters, and roughly 1,000 engines. But the sequester’s budget cuts this year will cut their ranks by about 5 percent.

The Forest Service and Interior Department expect to have a combined force of more than 13,000 firefighters and 1,600 engines available to fight this year’s fires. Vilsack, in a conference call with reporters, also said that the government will have 26 multi-engine air tankers, three water scooper aircraft, 27 single engine air tankers, and hundreds of helicopters available.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in the same conference call said the budget cuts will make teamwork between the two agencies even more important.

“We’ve seen where assets are, we’ve seen how they’ve been positioned, and I’ve learned about how they predict where fires are going to be and how they stage assets to jump on those that they expect are potentially going to be problematic,” Jewell said.

There are about 70,000 communities bordering wildland areas, and Vilsack said they have a responsibility to try to prevent fires. Vilsack and Jewell urged the public to help keep fires down by clearing vegetation and flammable debris from around their homes, moving wood piles and fuel tanks away from their homes, and creating “fire-free” areas around the perimeter of their homes to serve as a buffer.

As of May 3, the nation has had 13,115 fires covering 153,000 acres, Vilsack said. That is about 5,000 fires and 10,000 acres fewer than the same period last year, but Vilsack said the nation “should not be lulled into a false sense of security” because last year’s serious droughts have continued.

“We are preparing, and expecting a challenging season,” Vilsack said. “We will no doubt be seeing fires of significant size.”

Vilsack said about 45 million acres still require restoration treatments —such as thinning and prescribed burning — to lessen the risk of wildfire outbreaks. But tight budgets are making that difficult, although Vilsack said he could not quantify exactly how many fewer acres will be treated because of cuts.

“The reality is that, both departments are facing challenging budgets,” Vilsack said. “Nevertheless, we will work hard to make sure the job gets done, protecting people and property — in that order — and making sure that our firefighters are safe. And we hope that we get through this fire season without any fatalities.”

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