Nineteen Firefighters Die as Wildfire Prevention Budget Shrinks

While investigators are still working to understand why 19 elite firefighters died in Arizona on June 30 in the deadliest day for wilderness firefighters in 80 years, budget cutbacks may have played a role.

The cost of fighting wildfires has risen sharply in recent years, from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 to 40 percent in 2012. Because the Forest Service budget did not grow sufficiently to offset those rising costs, funds were diverted from prevention efforts, especially controlled burning and cutting.

As a result, although proposals by the Obama administration have increased funding for fighting wildfires overall, funding for wildfire prevention is expected to decrease for the third straight year. The administration proposed cutting an additional 41 percent from wildfire prevention in fiscal year 2014, reducing the budget from $317 million to $201 million.

Prescott firefighter Mark Matthews, who drove one of the vans that transported the bodies of the 19 firefighters to the Medical Examiner’s Office, said: “We knew these young men, these kids… And they were the cream of the crop. You couldn’t ask for better guys.” Vice President Joe Biden is expected to join mourners in Arizona to honor the fallen.

In recent years, fires similar to the one in Yarnell Hill have become “more frequent and more dangerous,” as a result of drought and overgrown vegetation, both conditions wildfire prevention preemptively treats. Additionally, reports have surfaced suggesting that technical difficulties compromised dispatcher communications and calls to the firefighters as the Yarnell Hill fire spread.

As the nation continues to combat its growing wildfire problem, policymakers should address shortfalls in communications and wildfire prevention so no more tragedies occur like the one in Yarnell Hill.  

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