The wildfire season is off to one of its slowest start in years, but two U.S. Cabinet secretaries on Monday said budget cuts could hamper fire fighting efforts later this summer and make it more difficult to prevent future fires and repair lands.
"We are preparing to suppress fires," said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, "but we are not able to put the resources into mitigating the damage done by those fires."
Jewell and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were in Boise, Idaho, on Monday to tour the National Interagency Fire Center the country's wildfire-fighting headquarters and participated in a conference call with reporters.
Nationwide, there have been 14,510 wildland fires so far in 2013, the lowest number in at least 10 years. But a lack of precipitation has Interagency Fire still predicting an "above average" fire season in the mountain states and perhaps a severe season in the Pacific Northwest.
Jewell and Vilsack implored people to go to www.fireadapted.org to learn how to mitigate wildfires and protect their homes.
Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, also said federal budget cuts mean 500 fewer wildland firefighters this year than in 2012. That will mean about 50 fewer fire engines deploying to blazes across the country, he said.
"We're going to utilize the resources we have to protect people and property," Vilsack said.
In answering a question about whether firefighters would make it a priority to protect watersheds in Utah, Jewell said the cuts also are reducing what the federal land agencies spend on preventing fires and rehabilitating lands after a fire.
"You can't do as much of that advance work as you would like or the post-fire remediation ," Jewell said, "to maintain the integrity of those ecosystems."
There was other good news in the news conference sort of. Drought in the Great Basin, which includes much of Utah, has reduced grasses and other light fire fuels to the point where large fires consuming thousands or tens of thousands of acres at a time is unlikely, according to Interagency Fire.