BOISE -- As we enter the heart of the fire season, fire managers and at least one Idaho senator are concerned that federal fire funds continue to be cut. That as wildfires continue to get bigger. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, on average, twice as much acreage burns annually now, as did in the 1990s.
Due to the sequester, the U.S. Forest Service's firefighting budget was cut by 5 percent, meaning 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines nationwide. A spokesman for the Boise National Forest said that didn't really affect them. They hired the same number of firefighters and engines as last year.
But, what's really worrying those with the Forest Service and Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch is the cutting of fire prevention funds. "It is a big deal. two out of every three acres in Idaho is owned by the federal government. Given that, the federal government has a responsibility because most fires are at least partially on federal land," Risch said.
From 2010 to 2013, the money for clearing dry brush and other fire fuels was cut by 14 percent. And, in the proposed 2014 budget, those funds would be cut again. That's according to Jennifer Jones with the U.S. Forest Service, who also says those prevention efforts work. But now, they have to do less of it in the spring to make sure they can fight fires in the summer. "Unfortunately, that requires us to make some very difficult trade offs between taking the actions that we know would really make a difference in the long term to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires, but also trying to maintain capability to respond to the wildfires that we have today," Jones said.
Both Risch and Jones say cutting funds for fire prevention can actually cost more in the long run, as the Forest Service fights bigger fires.
"So, when we don't have as much ability to go out and reduce hazardous fuels, that means that we're going to have to spend more on suppression," Jones said.
"Our firefighters are great people. They do a great job. They are well trained," Risch said. "But they need our support. They need our help in getting the right funding to see that it's done right."
Risch says he'd also like to see more funding for fire rehabilitation efforts. The senator just wants his colleagues in the East to see wildfire as a natural disaster, like hurricanes and tornadoes.