Feds: More Wildfires, Fewer Firefighters, Engines

May 14, 2013
There are about 10,000 wildland firefighters nationwide, about 500 fewer than usual, and about 50 fewer engines than the usual 1,000.

May 14--LAS CRUCES -- With a bleak outlook for this year's wildfire season and the challenge of a shrunken budget, federal officials on Monday urged private citizens to do their part to reduce the risk of fire to property and life.

"We are now at a time in the season where we need to begin to prepare for what will likely be a difficult fire season," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a news conference call from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Noting that 12 of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she expected the coming fire season to be "a tough one."

"It's pretty scary for folks on the ground here," said Jewell, who joined Vilsack in Idaho.

Vilsack, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said his budget has about $1 billion less in discretionary spending than in 2009, so less federal money is available for fuel reduction projects that can decrease fire danger.

"There's no question there will be fewer acres that are treated," Vilsack said. "There will obviously be fewer firefighters, there will be fewer engines, and hopefully we'll be able to manage this situation and ensure that people are protected and property is protected. That's our ultimate goal."

Last year, wildfires scorched 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land across the U.S., the third-highest acreage since 1960, when reliable records began to be kept, and damaged or destroyed 4,400 structures.

Vilsack said that, as of May 3, the country had already experienced 13,115 fires covering about 153,000 acres. Although there have been about 5,000 fewer wildfires at this point in the year than in 2012, and 10,000 fewer than in 2011, "We should not be lulled into a false sense of security about the nature of our upcoming fire season."

Federal officials said that heavy precipitation in the East and Southeast have resulted in fewer fires in those regions, but they believe the threat of wildfires is above average in the Southwest and from California through Washington.

Vilsack said his department will employ about 10,000 firefighters nationwide, about 500 fewer than usual, and about 50 fewer engines than the usual 1,000.

New Mexico had a record-setting wildfire season last year. The Whitewater Baldy fire burned almost 300,000 acres following lightning strikes in the Gila National Forest, and the Little Bear Fire north of Ruidoso destroyed more than 300 structures, making it the most destructive in state history by that measure.

Federal officials have already begun imposing restrictions on public lands to reduce the threat of wildfires in New Mexico.

Effective Monday morning, the Cibola National Forest and Grasslands imposed Stage II fire restrictions in the Sandia and Mountainair ranger districts, including areas in Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia, Torrance and Lincoln counties.

For a list of restrictions on federal lands, go to firerestrictions.us.

-- Email the reporter at [email protected]. Call the reporter at 575-526-4462

Copyright 2013 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

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