WASHINGTON (AP) — This year's across-the-board budget cuts are slicing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government's funds for battling wildfires, reductions that have meant fewer firefighters and could cause agencies to dip into other programs designed to prevent future blazes.
The U.S. Forest Service's $2 billion-a-year firefighting budget, which comprises the bulk of the federal effort, has been reduced by 5 percent, a cut that has meant 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines than last year, agency officials say. The Interior Department's $37.5 million reduction has meant 100 fewer seasonal firefighter positions and other lost jobs as well, department officials say.
The reductions come as officials brace for a wildfire season they say might rival last year's, when about 9.3 million acres burned, one of the largest totals on record. The West in particular faces tinderbox conditions, which, combined with high winds, proved deadly last weekend when a wildfire killed 19 members of a firefighting crew outside Yarnell, Ariz.
"This reduces our capability and significantly constrains our work in fire response" and restoring land after fires, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month about the cuts.
So far, more than 22,000 wildfires have burned more than 1.5 million acres across the country, according to the government's National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, which helps oversee federal firefighting efforts.
Together, the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, have around 13,000 firefighters.
The across-the-board budget cuts — called the sequester — have affected most federal programs and are the product of a deficit-reduction stalemate between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. The budget reductions, which are scheduled to cut federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade, have forced many agencies to take steps, including putting thousands of workers on unpaid furloughs.
Congressional aides said that because of the sequester, the Fire Service's suppression fund — which pays for overtime and other costs of fighting wildfires — has been cut from $538 million this year to $510 million. The service was also facing a $50 million cut in its fire preparedness budget, the fund used to hire firefighters and buy equipment.
The Interior Department, whose firefighting budget was $832 million before the sequester, was saving money from its reduced hiring of seasonal firefighters.
Many are being hired for shorter periods to save money, Jewell testified. Including the seasonal firefighters, the department will have 250 fewer positions in its fire programs, officials said.
When faced with emergency expenses for fighting wildfires that drain their funds, both agencies would draw money from other accounts in their budgets. From 2002 to 2012, the Fire Service transferred $2.7 billion from other programs to pay for fighting fires, $2.3 billion of which Congress eventually restored. That "still led to disruptions within all Forest Service programs," Thomas Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, told the Senate Energy panel last month.
Agency officials and environmental groups say such transfers can be harmful over time. For example, getting money to fight fires by taking it from programs for removing hazardous fuels from dry areas can make it likelier that future wildfires will occur.
"When we have emergencies burning, the U.S. government will continue to spend money on firefighting, even if they don't have the money," said Christopher Topik, director of the Restoring America's Forests project for The Nature Conservancy, the environmental group. "So then they'll take it out of these other kinds of accounts, which are the ones that actually reduce the risk. That's what will end up happening, and that's not a good policy."
Officials said the across-the-board cuts have had no direct impact on the 110 Hotshot crews around the country, the highly trained units based mostly in the West who respond to the worst wildfires. Most are financed and trained by the Fire Service and some by the Interior Department, but a handful — like the Arizona crew whose members died — are run locally.
"I don't know of any Hotshot crew that's been disbanded or not filled or been mothballed because of the sequester," said Tom Nichols, division chief for fire and aviation management of the National Park Service, a part of the Interior Department. "Because they really are our first line and our elite line for dealing with wildfires."