Agencies Focused On the Challenge
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today outlined the federal government's readiness for the wildland fire season to ensure protection for communities and restoration of forests and grasslands across the country.
The Secretaries described federal capability to respond to wildfires that are becoming more complex and extreme due to forest and rangeland health conditions, climate change and population growth near wildlands. They said that more than 18,000 firefighters will be available in 2010, including permanent and seasonal federal and state employees, crews from tribal and local governments, contract crews, and emergency/temporary hires.
"We are ready to meet the challenge," said Secretary Vilsack. "This national strategy will provide a strong, new blueprint to ensure community safety and the restoration of ecosystems to benefit all Americans, especially those who live in rural areas.
On average, the USDA Forest Service responds to more than 10,000 wildfires per year, suppressing 98 percent of them on initial attack. In order to continue to improve its ability to address this threat, the Forest Service recently provided more than $35 million in grants to state forestry agencies for preparedness, suppression, equipment, and training for more than 42,000 personnel. The agency also provided more than $10 million in grants to local volunteer fire departments for equipment and other support, such as training for more than 24,000 firefighters.
From now to October, federal firefighters, aircraft, and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the country. Firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned for when large fires break out.
Particularly throughout the West, a century of fire exclusion has left forests overstocked and full of hazardous fuels. Work to restore these forest ecosystems will include thinning and prescribed burning operations by federal land managers and their partners across jurisdictions.
"Together with state, local, and tribal partners we are putting additional resources on the ground and making sure the right plans are in place for this wildfire season," said Secretary Salazar. "Many of our forests have an unnatural accumulation of hazardous fuels, are unable to withstand insect and disease outbreaks, and are facing the impacts of climate change, all of which increase the potential for extreme wildfires. That's why our preparedness efforts - including prescribed burns, community partnerships, additional resources, and thinning of excess vegetation - are so vital to the safety of communities and the health of our lands and waters."
Wildfire does not stop at property boundaries. In the past ten years, wildfires have destroyed nearly 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings. Wildfires can threaten power grids, interrupt commerce, and put people out of work. Tens of millions of Americans depend on national forest watersheds for drinking water. Repairing damage to watersheds caused by extreme wildfires can cost millions and take a lifetime for vegetation to grow back.
Recent rainfall in the Northwest is expected to increase chances for wildfires in rangelands and push back the start of fire season in forest areas according to National Interagency Fire Center meteorologist Rick Ochoa. "We still expect an active forest wildfire season, but it is likely to begin in August, rather than July in the northern Rockies and portions of Idaho and Wyoming. We expect the Southwest to remain active until monsoons arrive in July."
Federal land managers are also helping communities prepare for wildfire. Federal partnerships with tribal, state, and local agencies strengthen preparedness programs, such as Firewise http://www.firewise.org/ and Ready Set Go! http://www.iafc.org/readySetGo ! that help families and communities prepare for and survive wildfire.