Feds warn sequester cuts weakened readiness for wildfire season

Administration officials warned Monday that sequester cuts would weaken wildfire management as agencies prepare for a season with “above normal significant fire potential.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said authorities were “dealing with significantly challenged budgets,” during a media call.

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The automatic, across-the-board spending cuts forced the Agriculture Department to shed 500 firefighters and 50 engines — roughly a 5 percent decline for each category. Officials said strained personnel will force them to increasingly rely on local communities to take steps to limit the chances of wildfires.

Reduced budgets at the Interior Department will also hinder fire response, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. She explained that her department had to scale back summer employment, losing park rangers and seasonal staff who have a “red card” to fight fires.

Vilsack warned that expectations of low rainfall and above average temperatures “doesn’t bode well” for the West.

Federal officials said they are “confident” the West will experience a higher-than-average amount of wildfires this year, though fewer and on a smaller scale than those that ravaged the region in 2012.

Last year, wildfires burned 9.3 million acres of land — the third-most since 1960 — and more than 4,400 structures, officials said.

Many Democratic lawmakers and President Obama have linked those wildfires to climate change, arguing that drought conditions affecting the West and Midwest along with higher temperatures sparked the uptick.

Climate scientists are hesitant to connect individual extreme weather events to climate change, though they contend climate may exacerbate some incidents, such as storms.

Federal agencies are exploring ways to limit damage from wildfires and drought associated with warmer temperatures, Jewell and Vilsack said.

“All the bureaus are looking at how to adapt their resources to a changing climate,” said Jewell, who noted 12 of the hottest years on record occurred over the past 15 years.

Jewell said the United States Geological Survey is designing tools to improve resource planning.

And Vilsack said his department has doubled research funding on climate-related activities, such as seed technologies and water management. In addition, he said the agency removed some restrictions for multi-cropping and cover-cropping, which help prevent soil erosion and encourage water efficiency.