Just in time for summer: Budget cuts force Forest Service to skimp on firefighters, trucks
Tea Partiers who watched gleefully as the sequester slashed government spending are welcome to douse forest fires near their homes with teapots full of Earl Grey this summer. Across-the-board budget cuts mean federal wildfire fighting efforts could be overwhelmed.
The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year and 50 fewer fire engines will be available than previously expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week. The Interior Department also plans to pare back its firefighting crews.
The seasonal firefighting jobs are going up in smoke because of Congress’s inability to come up with a national spending plan. President Obama called for spending cuts and tax increases to help balance the budget, but Republicans would have none of the latter.
Limited personnel and equipment will be prioritized to the parched West and Southwest. That will leave the East Coast vulnerable, though the Forest Service says it will do what it can to shift the spending cuts to other places if needed.
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. …
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.
Let’s hope so. The spending cuts are in place because House Republicans weren’t willing to increase taxes on the rich. But those folks will be crying for Smokey Bear when the fires threaten their mansions in the woods.