USA —While the number of wildfires around the country goes up every year, the amount of money the federal government is shelling out to fight those fires is getting cut by a lot.
The head of the U.S. Forest Service, Chief Tom Tidwell, was in Albuquerque Tuesday and flew over the Gila National Forest to catch a glimpse of the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire.
Tidwell says with the fires in the state, and an active fire season around the county, the Forest Service budget to pay firefighters will run out this summer.
A picture from NASA of the smoke from space shows just how immense it is.
“What I took home from that flight is the size of this fire, but also just how rugged the terrain is,” said Tidwell.
Crews have been fighting the flames for three weeks, and Tidwell thinks it’s going to take at least another month to put out. Fire bosses are reporting about 1,100 people assigned to the blaze.
Most of the money to fight the fire from the ground and the air comes from federal funding. The Forest Service is worried because over the past two years Congress has slashed funding for wildfire suppression and prevention by $500 million, a 15 percent cut.
“We feel that the money we have available for fire suppression this year will provide for a moderate fire season,” said Tidwell.
But Tidwell says this fire season won’t stay moderate for long. Things are expected to heat up around the country.
An active fire season would mean dipping into other funds.
“But that doesn’t factor into the decisions that we’re making,” he continued. “The decisions are based on what needs to occur, what’s the right way to do this, what’s the safe way to do this and that’s what we determine that needs to be done to combat these fires.”
Money is an afterthought when it comes to putting out fires. But Dan Ware from New Mexico’s State Forestry says fire crews won’t be wasting money.
“At any time when budgets get reduced, you learn how to stretch the dollar further,” said Ware. He adds that they won’t use an excessive amount of fire engines or pay office employees too much overtime.
“We have a great working relationship with United States Forest Services. We help them with their fires. They help us with our fires,” said Ware.
The number of air tankers has also been cut by about two-thirds, but for the Whitewater fire helicopters are being used more often.
Last fire season in New Mexico cost $28 million. About $10 million of that was billed to the federal government, but the state is still waiting on some of that money back.