Wildfire forecast calls for repeat of last year
DENVER — On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service predicted that the 2015 fire season will end up looking much like it did last summer, with early fire threats in California and Arizona, later danger in the Northwest, and the rest of the country facing the normal risk.
“We’ve been fortunate through the central part of the country to have above normal precipitation,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, speaking from Denver. “We currently have wildfires in Alaska, California and Arizona. Through the summer, the rest of the country will dry out into a normal fire season. The best way to describe this fire season is that it’s going to be much like last year — we’ll have another very active fire season.”
Forecasters have called for the wet May and June conditions to give way to drier weather in July.
“We’re speaking from Denver, and it’s wet and it’s green outside,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “But I will tell you there’s an awful lot of fuel out there, and if there’s lightning and it dries out, we could be seeing wildfires in the next few months.”
Drier weather on the way
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the wildland fire outlook for the Rocky Mountain region is positive. Significant wildfire potential is predicted to be below normal for June. While the wetter-than-normal conditions won’t stay, there will still be active weather patterns, some precipitation and normal to cooler temperatures through August. Moderate to severe drought still lingers in parts of western and southeastern Colorado, the outlook said.
While Colorado may be catching a break, wildfires will continue to be a serious problem for the country, Jewell said. Wildfire danger is exacerbated by climate change and prolonged Western drought. Fires threaten power grids, drinking water, watersheds and property, she said.
In addition, fire season has gotten longer over the last decade, Tidwell said.
“The fire season is now 60 to 80 days longer than it was traditionally,” he said. “We’re not only fighting more fires, but we’re fighting them for a longer time through the year.”
Federal funds requested
Wildfires are such a growing problem, in fact, that the Forest Service spends about half of its budget putting out fires. An ever-increasing portion of Forest Service budget goes toward fighting wildfires. That number has been about 50 percent in the past few years, and in the most severe fire seasons, the Forest Service has had to borrow money up into the billions to keep doing firefighting work.
That’s the basis for President Barack Obama’s budget proposal, which asks Congress to reform the way the government pays to fight wildfires, allocating funds like it would for other natural disasters like hurricanes.
“It’s asking Congress to look at the most catastrophic fires and treat them as the natural disasters that they are and allocate money toward that (instead of coming from the Forest Service or the Department of the Interior),” said Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The proposal is pending Congressional approval.
“We can only hope that Congress wakes up to the fact that we are one fire away from having to borrow money again like we have the last 10 years. It’s not increasing the budget, but it’s using a fund that already exists for natural disasters,” Vilsack said.
The Department of the Interior has introduced other wildfire protection measures this year, including a comprehensive, science-based strategy to address the increasing threat of wildfires and a program that trains military veterans to help fight wildfires.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.