After another dry winter across much of the West, fire officials are poised for a tough wildfire season that will be even more challenging because federal budget cuts mean fewer firefighters on the ground, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Monday.
Jewell, who is just five weeks into her new job, said automatic budget cuts mandated by Congress will force fire managers to make choices as they prioritize resources.
They also will have fewer resources to use on strategies designed to reduce future fire potential, such as prescribed burns and reseeding.
"We will fight the fires and we will do them safely," Jewell said. "But the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. What you're not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscape for the future."
Jewell spent the past two days touring the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, the government's national wildfire nerve center. She was joined by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said the U.S. Forest Service alone will hire 500 fewer firefighters and deploy 50 fewer engines this season.
"We are going to be faced with a difficult fire season," Vilsack said. "The bottom line is we're going to do everything we can to be prepared. But folks need to understand ... our resources are limited and our budgets are obviously constrained. We will do the best job we possibly can with the resources we have."
Congress cut the current budgets for the Forest Service and Agriculture Department 5 percent under the mandated spending reductions, then added another 2.5 percent cut for fiscal 2013.
Other federal agencies that battle blazes also anticipate hiring fewer people to fight fires, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Forest Service, however, will be adding some muscle to its ability to fight blazes from the air. The agency announced earlier this month it has contracted to use seven air tankers that fly faster and drop bigger amounts of fire retardant this summer.
Even before Monday's visit, fire experts were predicting a grim scenario of this summer's fire season. A dry winter and early warming has created conditions for a fire season that could begin earlier than usual and burn as much as last year, where states like New Mexico and Oregon posted new records for burned acreage.
Crews already have fought blazes in California and Colorado. Barring any dramatic weather changes, the fire season is projected to start a month earlier than usual for Oregon, southern Washington, central Idaho and Montana.
Conditions are also ripe for above-normal fire potential in Arizona and New Mexico, but forecasters say late-season rains could tone down the southwest fire season at least until late summer.
Jewell, who flew on a training exercise over Idaho's backcountry Sunday with smokejumpers, said despite the challenges posed by drought and budget constraints, firefighting remains a priority for her agency.
Jewell and Vilsack both emphasized that states and local communities will be called upon even more to help battle blazes, protect property and be patient if federal crews are occupied elsewhere.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, defended the decision by Congress to trim agency budgets mid-year in an effort to trim government spending and reduce the national debt. But the first-term senator also predicted congressional support for relief money if catastrophic fires were devastating the Western landscape.
"You have got to accept there is not going to be federal spending as there has been in the past," said Risch, who joined Jewell and Vilsack on the tour. "There is no question of whether you support (the cuts) because there is no money.