Federal officials say in spite of above average rainfall across the U.S. Southwest in recent months, the latest estimates for wildfire activity this summer indicate that the buildup of fuel, a changing climate, and insect and disease pressure, heavy forested areas, especially in the West, could tax federal fire suppression efforts in 2015.
While the threat nationwide has been reduced overall, excessive fires in recent years have taxed federal budgets and a new strategy is needed to consolidate interagency funds and resources to help support major fire fighting efforts when needed.
"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,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“This year the Forest Service will be able to mobilize 10,000 firefighters and 21 next generation and legacy air tankers, along with additional aviation assets that play a crucial role in stopping the spread of wildfires," Vilsack said during a briefing attended by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado Tuesday (June 9).
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According to the National Interagency Fire Center's (NIFC) Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for 2015, below normal fire potential will exist in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado as a result of heavy spring rains driven by an El Niño weather event in the southern Pacific. Also, heightened fire dangers in southern Arizona and parts of central and northern California and Oregon are expected this summer.
Washington, Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana are expected to face increasing fire risks later in the summer season, and if the El Niño system dissipates before the end of summer, high risks could return to parts of the Southwest.
The Obama administration warned Tuesday that despite a wet spring, this summer's wildfires could drain the federal firefighting budget and force government agencies to transfer money from programs meant to reduce long-term fire danger. According to federal fire officials, high risks of increased fires will increase from July through September and could also affect areas in the Carolinas and Georgia by summer's end.
Secretary Vilsack, Secretary Jewell and Chief Tidwell met in Denver to discuss how President Obama plans to change the way the government funds wildfire-fighting to ease the strain on the budget.
"Partnerships and collaborative planning to respond to wildfire are the foundation for effective firefighting," said Jewell. "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."
Partnership announced with BLM
As part of the effort to better position the federal budget to help with fire suppression efforts, Jewell announced a partnership Tuesday with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the veteran-based organization Team Rubicon to provide wildland firefighter training to assist in firefighting efforts.
Vilsack said the Forest Service (a USDA agency), Department of Interior, and other federal and local partners continue to suppress approximately 98 percent of fires on initial attack.
The Department of the Interior has released its new strategy designed to address the increasing threat of wildfires that damage vital sagebrush landscapes and productive rangelands in the West, especially in the Great Basin states of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah.
The report, "An Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy: Final Report to the Secretary of the Interior, May 2015," outlines a science-based approach for addressing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that exacerbate the threat of fire and recommends increased training for rural firefighters and local volunteers as well as positioning fire management resources for more effective rangeland fire response. The report also focuses on the need to restore fire-impacted landscapes using native seed and local vegetation.
The White House announced this week a proposal to help fund fire suppression efforts this summer but says some relief for next year could be coming in the fall. That's when the House Appropriations Committee is proposing a budget of $3.6 billion for wildland firefighting and prevention for the fiscal year that starts in October, just over $52 million more than the current budget.
According to USDA, staffing for fighting fires has more than doubled since 1998 but the number of workers who manage National Forest lands has dropped significantly.