Letters From the West

Thinning, fuels reduction will be cut to keep firefighters on job

BLM Wildland Fire Analyst.Jeremy Sullens tlks abou the red on the map behind him as the highest fire danger this year.

BLM Wildland Fire Analyst.Jeremy Sullens talks about the red on the map behind him as the highest fire danger this year.

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.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talks to reporters

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talks to reporters. (Idaho Statesman photo by Joe Jaszewski)

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.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West