Wildfires to Cost U.S. Forest Service More Under Sequestration

A 16,000 acre wildfire blazing in the Black Forest of Colorado has burned more than 485 homes and taken two lives, but the efforts of firefighters may be hindered by budget disagreements in Washington.

“Deputies say it looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said. The Colorado Army National Guard has been brought in to assist in the efforts of hundreds of firefighters, as well as three UH-60 Black Hawks, which have doused the flames with more than 30,000 gallons of water so far.

At the beginning of another “potentially severe fire season,” budget cuts caused by sequestration are spurring concerns that the U.S. Forest Service is understaffed and underequipped to fulfill its mission. The Forest Service is currently operating with “500 fewer firefighters, 50-70 fewer fire engines, and 2 fewer aircraft” as a result of budget cuts.

Sequestration-induced budget cuts could wind up costing the Forest Service more to fight fires, explained U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell when testifying before Congress in April. Because full-time positions are being cut, the Forest Service will be forced to depend more heavily on temporary contracts, which are “one-and-a-half to two times” as expensive.

Even before sequestration was implemented, funding for firefighting was tight. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service ran out of money during “the worst wildfire season on record.” The Forest Service was forced to take money from programs intended for forest fire prevention in order to fight active fires.

This year, agencies are already projecting a $700 million deficit in funding for wildfires during FY 2013, according to a House Appropriations report.  

For more information about the impact of sequestration on various agencies, click here.

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