Wildfire risk runs high, but budget cuts mean fewer firefighters

Crews battle the Springs fire in Ventura County last week.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON — The drought that caused record wildfires in California and other Western states last year is expected to persist through the summer, but fewer firefighters will battle this year’s blazes in other regions because of federal budget cuts, top federal officials said Monday.

The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year, the result of “line by line” budget reductions required by Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters. The reduced staffing also means 50 fewer fire engines will be available, Vilsack said.

Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel said much of the West would face severe fire danger this summer.


“We will no doubt be seeing some fires of significant size,” Vilsack said.

The Interior Department is also expected to cut its firefighting forces.

The Forest Service hires firefighters in spring and retains them through fall, Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s national director of fire and aviation management, said in an interview Monday. Last year, when 9.3 million acres burned in the United States, the Forest Service hired 10,500 firefighters. The Interior Department fielded another 2,500.

California is expected to be the most imperiled of the dry Western states. The state this year has received only 25% of the rainfall that it received in the same period for 2012, National Interagency Fire Center fire analyst Jeremy Sullens said. Other states expected to be hit hard are Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Idaho, along with portions of other states.

Because of the danger California is in, the Forest Service does not plan to reduce hiring there, Harbour said. The reductions will more likely affect Eastern states, where the danger is less serious this year.

The Forest Service was required to cut $50 million from a fire preparedness fund under across-the-board budget cuts implemented this year, which affected nearly every government agency.

The Forest Service has a contingency plan that would allow it to hire additional firefighters throughout the fire season, including training new firefighters and potentially bringing in National Guard or members of the military, Harbour said.

In previous years when more firefighters have been needed, the Forest Service has shifted money out of accounts for things such as road maintenance, campgrounds, wildlife and range management programs, Harbour said. He expects the agency will be able to do so again.


“We’re going to keep fighting fire,” he said.