In Extreme Wildfire Season, Budget Cuts Put Communities in Danger

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Common Dreams

In Extreme Wildfire Season, Budget Cuts Put Communities in Danger

Funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m since 2010

by
Common Dreams staff

A fire engulfs the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. The fire has become the largest wildfire in the state's history (Photo: Handout/Reuters).

Fire experts at wildfiretoday.com are warning today that firefighters across the US are beginning to feel the effects of federal budget cuts to firefighting programs -- making it more and more difficult to fight and prevent forest fires ahead of what is shaping up to be another record setting wildfire season.

This year has seen an unusually early wildfire season which began as early as March and has resulted in multiple 'megafires' such as the record-setting outbreak currently blazing in New Mexico.

Fire crews are now scrambling for resources, in a season that appears to be long from over.

"A person has to wonder. Is this going to be the new norm – frequent record-setting fires, while the number of federal firefighters and air tankers continue to shrink?" wrote Bill Gabbert, a former fire management officer and now writer at wildfiretoday.com.

"The economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting," Suzanne Goldenberg reports at the Guardian/UK today.

Funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

"Super-sized and highly destructive wildfires have become a regular occurrence in America, especially in the south-west, because of drought, climate change and human interference with the natural landscape. Last year saw record-breaking fires in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The early start to this year's fire season has sharpened fears of a sequel: with more acres and homes lost, and bigger budget crises for federal and state governments fighting the disasters," writes Goldenberg.

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The Guardian/UK: Wildfire budget cuts in Congress put communities in danger, experts warn

Fire experts are warning that $512m in congressional budget cuts could leave communities dangerously exposed in an early and active fire season.

Such warnings have sharpened with the early onset of this year's fire season, and the record-setting outbreak in New Mexico.

Experts fear the shortfall will leave fire crews scrambling for resources, and force government agencies to dip into other non-fire budgets to cover the gap. [...]

The number of active air tankers fell from 44 to 14 over the last decade, prompting a group of western Senators to demand the government update the fleet for the coming fire season.

"Concerns have increasingly been raised that the federal agencies responsible for responding to wildland fires – the Forest Service and four agencies in the department of interior – do not have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft that will be needed for wildland fire suppression operations," the letter said.

Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who raised the alarm, told reporters the federal government needed to act quickly to update the fleet for the coming seasons of bigger fires.

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The Guardian/UK: New Mexico's record-setting wildfires deepen trend of devastating 'megafires'

"Our fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer throughout the country," said Tim Sexton, wildfire research director for the US forest service. "When I first started, a three-day fire or a four-day fire was a long fire and now a month-long fire is not that uncommon."

Low-intensity wildfires are part of the natural landscape of the south-west but Ta study by fire scientists last month charted a disturbing new trend of large and devastating fires, consuming record areas of land and burning for weeks. By early Friday, the fire was just 10% contained, the forest service reported. [...]

The forest had seen nearly a dozen small-scale fires over the last several hundred years, according to the ecological record, said Matthew Rollins, the wildlands fire science director for the US geological survey.

But he said the forest had never experienced an all-consuming fire like the one burning now, with flames shooting up to the treetops.

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