In August 2011, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to reduce federal expenditures and begin a road toward a balanced budget.
Although many believed Congress and President Barack Obama would find an acceptable compromise to these across-the-board cuts, no other solution was mutually agreed upon.
The reduced funding began March 1.
Eighteen months after passage of the initial sequester legislation, the public is asking how these cuts will affect programs and activities. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has a ranger district in Idyllwild, which employs dozens of staff.
Will any be cut or furloughed? What is the effect on fire resources?
Unfortunately, the Forest Service is unable or unwilling to answer these questions.
The San Bernardino National Forest referred these questions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Communication. Stephanie Chan of that office shared a month-old letter from Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack to the Senate Appropriations Chair, Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
In the letter, Vilsack said the sequestration would reduce Agriculture’s budget about $2 billion in fiscal year 2013. The federal fiscal year is from Oct. 1 through the next Sept. 30.
In the letter, he says the “agencies have already taken actions to prepare for additional funding reductions through prudent practices such as hiring freezes and limiting operating costs.”
However, no one at the Forest Service is willing or able to discuss these plans.
According to Secretary Vilsack, wildland fire management funding will be reduced about $134 million. The result is a funding level nearly $42 million below the 10-year average cost for Forest Service fire suppression activities.
With fire season nearly upon us, no one has been willing to say whether local fire resources will be affected by this funding cut. Not only fire suppression, but preparedness activities will all be reduced. Vilsack did report that hazardous fuel treatments would occur on 200,000 fewer acres.
“[The] agency could reduce upfront costs by reducing use of exclusive-use aviation contracts, 115 engine, and 10 hotshot crews,” he told the committee. “However, this could result in larger fires, which will result in higher expenditures.”
The difficulty obtaining information from the Forest Service is pervasive. The Prescott Daily Courier has encountered the same intransigence. And even organizations of wildland firefighters have gleaned little information.
“We’re getting some information about furloughs, although nothing specific about the [San Bernardino National Forest],” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. “…Will we see furloughs so they can save the money and spend it on non-fire stuff? Also the typical argument is if the preparedness budget is impacted to where federal resources are delayed from coming on board, the season isn’t going to wait because of budget issues. Then more and more will have to be spent on suppression paying for expensive non-federal stuff.”
Whatever happens with Forest Service funding, CAL FIRE is planning on two more engines stationed on the Hill. This will occur in the next month, according to Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins.