As wildfire season stretches, Forest Service shifts, balances priorities

Firefighters fill up bladder bags for mopping up during the Wildcat Fire of 2016.

Photo/U.S. Forest Service

Firefighters fill up bladder bags for mopping up during the Wildcat Fire of 2016.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the wildfire season is about 78 days longer than it was in 1970, leading the Forest Service to strike a balance between maintaining forests and fighting more fires.

Over the past two decades, the Forest Service has shifted personnel to keep up with the increasing number and severity of wildland fires. In 1998, the agency employed about 17,000 workers to maintain forest properties. As of 2016, that number had dropped to 10,000. Over that same period, the number of fire personnel has increased about 68 percent, up from 5,000 in 1998 to around 8,400 in 2017. The agency has also had transfer funds from forest management to firefighting.

For fiscal year 2016, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the agency shifted about $30 million to clean-up efforts near trails, campgrounds and outlying communities in an attempt to lower the fire risk in those areas. In recent years, the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Forest service have been asking Congress to devise a different way to pay for fighting fires so that money will no longer be taken from forest management programs.

In spite of the longer burning season, Kaibab National Forest spokesperson Jacqueline Banks said the forest fire staff is hired and ready to go for the upcoming season. Banks said Kaibab National Forest has hired the same number of seasonal staff for the past few years and hasn’t had to cut any non-fire staff to accommodate fire personnel.

The seasonal fire staff has been in place since March, and Banks said they will join their permanent counterparts around April or May, when the season starts to pick up. Banks said fire season in northern Arizona typically peaks between May and July, just before the annual monsoon rains arrive.

“We feel the number of seasonal fire personnel we have hired is appropriate to our needs on the Kaibab National Forest, she said. “We are ready for fire season in northern Arizona.”

In addition to combating any wildland fires that arise, Kaibab National Forest will continue prescribed burns when conditions are favorable, which cut down on the amount of available fuels for wildfires should one break out.

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