Many fires, less firefighting money expected in 2013 wildfire season

Last year, the Chips fire near Greenville, California was one of many wildfires to force mass evacuations and char thousands of acres. (Photo: Max Whittaker, Reuters)
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Brooks Hays

While several late winter storms have momentarily tempered drought conditions around the country, officials are concerned 2013’s wildfire season could be every bit as bad as last year’s.

As the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho detailed in its most recent wildfire forecast, a colder than expected winter will soon be a thing of the past, with the potential for wildfires rising in the South and Southwest as spring turns to summer.

In Florida, where February was quite dry, the NIFC is predicting an “early start” to the season with “increasing potential for significant fires." Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California are also named as likely wildfire hotspots.

But even as federal and state agencies prepare for a year of blazes similar to the record-setting 2012 wildfire season, the strategy has quietly shifted. Earlier this month, the Forest Service, which oversees about 193 million tree-filled acres in 43 states, signaled a slight departure from its more aggressive 2012 firefighting strategy — one that ended up costing the agency $1.3 billion, $400 million more than it had been budgeted.

In a letter to agency leadership, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell reminded his fellow foresters: "We learn from every experience and use that knowledge to improve." The letter emphasizes meeting "reasonable objectives" and avoiding "unnecessary risk."

Though vague, that language is being interpreted as a subtle walk back from 2012's "aggressive initial attack" directive.

“They haven’t really spelled out for us what this means beyond the chief’s letter,” Phil Sammon, a spokesman for the Forest Service’s Montana office, recently told OnEarth. “It does look like there’s going to be a shift from last year.”

So far, Tidwell has been reluctant to acknowledge a reversal of strategy, calling the new approach an "evolution of the science and the expertise" in an interview with the Associated Press.

Some see the reluctance as calculated. “I’d say they’re being strategically vague,” Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, tells OnEarth. "This new policy gives a lot more flexibility. It takes the blanket policy where every fire was treated the same and gives fire managers more options." Ingalsbee predicts the policy shift signals a return to a more restrained firefighting philosophy — one similar to the National Park Service's longstanding approach, whereby smaller and more remote fires are allowed to burn themselves out.

The Forest Service may be motivated by more than a desire to learn from the pitfalls of last year's game plan — one that cost the agency not just significant fiscal problems, but the lives of 12 firefighters. The agency will also be forced to face what's likely to be another prolific year of blazes with a shrunken budget.

Sequestration cuts will cost the agency some $134 million in firefighting funds — that's roughly 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer staffed fire engines.

At least two U.S. senators are worried that a lack of firefighting funds spells danger for those living in and around wildfire-prone areas. Earlier this year, Colorado Senator Mark Udall and Montana Senator Jon Tester attempted to restore $653 million to the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Account with an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriation for Disaster Assistance. The amendment failed.

It appears the Forest Service's new firefighting strategy will be tested sooner rather than later. Already this season, one wildfire has burned 260 acres near the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. Another fire outside Lory State Park, near Fort Collins, Colorado, scorched nearly 1,000 acres — not an ideal start for the state that suffered its worst fire year on record in 2012.