The Ag and Interior secretaries vowed they would meet the challenge of tinderbox conditions to fight fires across the West despite deep budget cuts this summer.
But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that to meet the demands of firefighting the Forest Service and others agencies will have to slash funding for thinning and clearing hazardous fuels from around communities that reduces fire danger in the future.
“It’s these kind of programs that are really taking a hit,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Vilsack and Jewell were briefed by fire managers at the Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Monday. They were told that even though fire starts are at a record low mostly in the east, experts expect a long hot summer across the American West including Idaho.
The Forest Service will have 500 fewer firefighters hired and 50 fewer engines going into the fire season because of the across-the-board cuts Congress approved. Add more than 2 percent of other cuts forced on the agency that manages 193 million acres and the overall cut is more than 7 percent, Vilsack said.
Idaho Republican Jim Risch, who joined the two cabinet secretaries on the tour praised the firefighting agencies for doing as well as they can with less. But Risch, who voted for the cuts, offered little hope the secretaries will be able to avoid the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul tradeoffs they face.
“”We got to accept the fact there is not going to be federal funding like there was before,” Risch said.
But in August, if all of the firefighting resources are already in place and more are needed to meet the threat Risch said he and other western lawmakers will put together a coalition to get the emergency funding that is necessary.
Jewell joined smokejumpers Sunday on a training flight five weeks into her tenure as Interior secretary. She also led the entourage over to the Boise Fire Dispatch outside of NIFC to see how the firefighters from federal, state and local governments work together on the ground.
She said she was proud of how everyone works together seamlessly “no matter what label is on their shirt.”
Vilsack marveled at how well the interagency center coordinates resources around the country, including pre-positioning fire engines and other equipment near where they expect fires to start.
“If this was a circus these people would be the juggling act,” Vilsack said.