Fire officials are poised for a tough wildfire season after another dry winter across much of the West, and made more challenging because federal budget cuts mean fewer firefighters on the ground, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Monday.
Jewell said automatic budget cuts mandated by Congress will force fire managers to make choices as they prioritize resources.
Congress cut the current budgets for the Forest Service and Agriculture Department 5 percent under the mandated spending reductions, then added another 2.5 percent cut for fiscal 2013.
Even before Monday’s visit, fire experts were predicting a grim scenario of this summer’s fire season. A dry winter and early warming has created conditions for a fire season that could begin earlier than usual and burn as much as last year, where states like New Mexico and Oregon posted new records for burned acreage.
Crews already have fought blazes in California and Colorado. Barring any dramatic weather changes, the fire season is projected to start a month earlier than usual for Oregon, southern Washington, central Idaho and Montana.
Conditions are also ripe for above-normal fire potential in Arizona and New Mexico, but forecasters say late-season rains could tone down the southwest fire season at least until late summer.