USA —WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today outlined the federal government’s readiness for the wildland fire season to ensure protection for communities and restoration of forests and public lands across the country. The Secretaries were joined by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and National Predictive Services Program Manager of the National Interagency Fire Center Ed Delgado.
The Secretaries described federal capability to respond to wildfires that are becoming more complex, particularly in areas where urban populations are situated near forested and rangeland areas. Firefighting capabilities are available to handle the fire season, they declared, with more than 15,000 firefighters available in 2012, including permanent and seasonal federal and state employees, crews from tribal and local governments, contract crews, and temporary hires.
“We are ready to meet the challenge,” said Secretary Vilsack. “The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy provides a strong, new blueprint to ensure community safety and the restoration of ecosystems to benefit all Americans, especially those who live in the urban-wildland interface areas. Our concern does not stop at the border of federal lands, but rather a strategy that is an all-lands approach for safety and wildfire management.”
On average the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior bureaus respond to more than 20,000 wildfires per year, suppressing all but a small percentage of them on initial attack.
“Regions across the country face serious risks of extreme wildfires this year because of the mild winter and low precipitation levels in many areas,” said Secretary Salazar. “Knowing the risks and preparing for the wildfire season is a key part of a successful fire response, and Interior will continue to coordinate closely with federal, state, local and tribal partners to ensure we are ready for any fire scenario. Our thousands of firefighting men and women stand ready to suppress wildfires as early as possible to minimize human safety risks and prevent damage to the environment and our economy.”
Much of the 500 million acres of public land managed by the Department of the Interior is in the low-elevation rangelands in the West, where grasses and shrubs provide an abundant wildfire fuel source especially after mild winters. Together, USDA and DOI’s wildfire prevention and suppression efforts employ 15,000 firefighters. DOI’s fire funding availability for fiscal year 2012 is $736 million and USDA’s 2012 fire budget totals $2.155 billion.
“We urge citizens in at-risk areas to take necessary precautions,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. “That means stay informed and make a family plan. FEMA’s Ready Campaign provides more information at www.Ready.gov,” he added. “FEMA stands ready to support the Departments of Agriculture and Interior and our state, tribal and local partners should disaster strike,” he said.
“Federal firefighters, aircraft, and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the nation. Firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial attack capabilities,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “In addition, we are in the midst of conducting accelerated restoration activities nationwide that will result in healthier forests and will lessen fire risks in years to come.”
Restoration efforts on public lands are critically needed to address a number of threats to the health of ecosystems, watersheds, wildlife habitats and forest dependent communities. Threats not only include wildland fire, but also climate change, invasive weeds and invasive insect epidemics.
Forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise say that an exceptional drought continues across much of the Southwest from western Texas to California and into the Great Basin and will increase the possibility of an above normal significant fire season in those areas this year.
Also of concern are the western slopes of the Rockies in Colorado, parts of the Southeast to include southern Georgia and northern Florida, northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and parts of Hawaii.
Particularly throughout the West, a century of fire exclusion has left public lands overstocked. Work to restore ecosystems will include accelerated restoration efforts that include thinning and prescribed burning operations by federal land managers and their partners across jurisdictions.
Wildfire does not stop at property boundaries. In the past ten years, wildfires have destroyed 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings. Wildfires can threaten power grids, interrupt commerce, and put people out of work. Tens of millions of Americans depend on national forest watersheds for drinking water. Repairing damage to watersheds caused by extreme wildfires can cost millions and take a lifetime for vegetation to grow back.
Federal land managers are also helping communities prepare for wildfire. Federal partnerships with tribal, state, and local agencies strengthen preparedness programs, such as Firewise http://www.firewise.org/ and Ready Set Go! http://www.iafc.org/readySetGo that help families and communities prepare for and survive wildfire.