Budget Cuts, High Fire Potential Could Mean Tough Wildfire Season In the West

May 13, 2013

The Springs Fire burned more than 6,000 acres near Garden Valley, Idaho last summer
Credit Kari Greer / Boise National Forest

The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior came to Boise today to talk about the upcoming fire season.  They said above normal fire potential and less money in the budget will make for a difficult fire season in the West.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the wildfire outlook this way:  “We’re going to be faced with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that.”

Vilsack spoke at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where predictions for June, July, and August are above normal for much of Idaho, Oregon, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

But the money to fight those fires has been cut, because of federal budget cuts known as the sequester.  Vilsack says 5 percent of his budget is gone. “On top of that, Congress cut another 2.6 percent so we had to deal with a 7.5 percent cut in the remaining part of this year," says Vilsack. "So it’s in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.  That translates for the Forest Service into the inability to hire 500 more people than they would otherwise be able to hire."

That means instead of hiring 10,500 firefighters, the Forest Service will reduce that number by 500.  And there will be 50 fewer engines on the ground. 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she’s dealing with federal budget cuts as well. “We will fight the fires and we will do them safely, but the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal," says Jewell. "So you can take care of fighting fires in any given year but what you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscapes for the future.”

Jewell says there are fewer seasonal workers being hired.  That means if the fire season is bad they may have to bring in more contract resources, which could cost more money in the long run.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio