The United States government has committed a record amount of money to fight wildfires this year in what promises to be a busy season, but it remains unclear whether the necessary number of firefighters will be available. in a context of national labor shortages.

With a busy start to the fire season in the Southwest and drought fueling a high wildfire risk from the Great Plains to northern California, federal authorities are scrambling to hire about 16,900 firefighters, including hotshots , smokejumpers and helitack crews.

The two federal agencies that fight wildfires — the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior — can leverage a combined $4.7 billion budget this year, more than ever before, while deploying 1,549 fire engines and more than 310 helicopters, air tankers and airplanes. who can drop water or watch the forest for smoke.

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Those numbers represent an increase from last year — a few hundred firefighters and $100 million in disaster funds that the two agencies can tap into to avoid plundering their own budgets during costly fire seasons.

The amount the federal government spends on wildfire suppression has steadily increased over the past few decades as wildfires get bigger and more intense, reaching a record $4.38 billion in 2021. It a year ago, monster infernos like the Dixie and Caldor fires in California scorched over a million acres, destroyed several cities, burned over 2,300 structures, and cost $900 million and thousands of firefighters to wipe out.

In addition to an increase in the number of federal firefighters, many states are also increasing the number of wildland firefighters they employ, including an additional 100 firefighters in Oregon for 2021.

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Concern over hiring firefighters

While the federal and state governments have optimistic goals, the reality of hiring firefighters has proven difficult in a tight job market.

During testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 4, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the agency had hired about 10,200 firefighters, against its target of 11,300. he added, some areas had only reached 50% of the staffing target.

“We make offers, and there are a lot of variations in those offers,” Moore said during the hearing. “There is a lot of competition in the labor market for these skills. Because when you have county, state and private firefighters often times [making] doubling the salaries of Forest Service firefighters, it’s very hard to compete with that.

On May 4, an electronic sign outside a business in Las Vegas, New Mexico asks passers-by to

Forest Service officials declined to say exactly where the gaps were, but the response raised concern from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

“Fifty percent seems a bit scary when you think about the fires we’ll be dealing with in our various states,” Merkley said during the hearing.

Merkley said he was confident that “the agency is making steady progress in hiring more firefighters and working to have the firefighting resources it needs as wildfire season begins.” , he said in an email to the Statesman Journal.

The Home Office, which plans to hire 5,600 firefighters, said it had hired 4,100 so far, but added it was common not to reach full strength until the summer.

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End of “fire loans” and increase in the emergency fund

The amount of money available to federal agencies to fight wildfires has increased since a 2018 bill established the ability for agencies to access a “disaster/reserve” fund that grew to $2.45 billion this year, up from $2.35 billion a year ago.

In 2018, Congress passed a law that allowed agencies to dip into disaster funds when suppression costs exceeded their budget.

Both agencies said the legislation helped eliminate the practice of “fire borrowing,” in which agencies raid their other departments, including recreation, engineering and even prevention programs. to pay for the rising costs of fighting forest fires.

“To date, it has been very successful,” a Forest Service spokesperson said of the program, which the agency tapped into those funds in 2021.

The program works like this: if either agency uses all of its firefighting budget, then it can go to the emergency fund rather than using other parts of its budget. It can pay for additional contract firefighters, large fire camps, or whatever else might be needed.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped draft the legislation, said the program worked as intended.

“As of 2018, the Forest Service and Interior are no longer required to loot prevention funds to fight fires,” Wyden said. “Oregonians know all too well the devastation of today’s wildfires. When it comes to saving lives and property from destruction, prevention and repression must go hand in hand.

Utah fire crews prepared to battle wildfires near Butte Falls in southern Oregon in September 2020. Firefighters trying to contain massive wildfires that month in the Oregon, California and Washington state were constantly on the brink of exhaustion as they attempted to save suburban homes, including some in their own neighborhoods.

What kind of wildfire season will it be?

The forecast for the coming season paints a picture of elevated wildfire danger in the Southwest through June before above-normal risk moves to northern California in June, all the middle of the county in July and much of the west coast in August.

This year has already been active with the Arizona Tunnel Fire burning 30 homes and multiple wildfires in New Mexico causing the evacuation of thousands of people.

“It’s been a busy season already and looking at the risk map as a whole, I’d say we’re gearing up for another long year,” said Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise and a former firefighter. forest. “What jumps out at you is that almost the whole central part of the country falls into the (high danger) zone, so if we have a lot of activity there, and then if we have the type of fires we’ve seen across the West recently, this could be a real strain on resources.

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At the peak of the 2021 wildfire season, which was busier than normal, some wildfire crews in the West, including Oregon, reported they were understaffed as resources were moved to areas where the danger to communities was greatest.

“Last year we were stretched thin on resources,” Forest Service spokesman Brian Reublinger said. “But it’s pretty normal for Fires to trade resources and things when one Fire is in greater need than another, especially in a busy year.”

August

Much of the risk this season is driven by the ongoing mega-drought west of the Mississippi. Seventy-five percent of the High Plains is experiencing at least moderate drought while 77% of the West remains mired in severe drought, despite improvements during a wet and cool April, according to the US Drought Monitor .

The final ingredient is that long-term forecasts point to a hot, dry summer across virtually all of the United States – potentially fueling fast-spreading fires in many parts of the country.

Overall, the fire season looks a little better than a year ago — which set records for destruction and cost — but not that much, Gardetto said.

“Honestly, at this point, all we can do is plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she said.

The long-term forecast for the United States.

United States wildfire budget

US Forest Service Core Funds: $1.011 billion

Basic funds of the Ministry of the Interior: $384 million

Disaster/Reserve Fund: $2.45 billion

Unspent reserve funds from previous years: DOI of $612 million; $271.7 million for the USFS

Total possible funds: $4.7 billion

Federal firefighting resources (USFS and DOI)

Firefighters/staff: 16,900 (11,300 USFS, 5,600 DOIs)

Engines: 1,549 (649 DOIs, 900 USFS)

Tanker aircraft/helicopters/planes: 334 (111 DOIs, over 200 USFS)

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Zach Urness has been an outdoor journalist in Oregon for 15 years and is the host of the Explore Oregon podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors