WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s decision to cut 500 forest firefighting positions as a cost saving measure could ultimately cost taxpayers more money if this year’s wildfire season blows out of control.
That’s according to Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and environment for President George W. Bush, who told The Observer that the sequestration spending cuts should not leave Colorado short-handed this summer.
Several forests are already ablaze in the state destroying nearly 100 homes and have forced the evacuation of thousands of residents this week. Several injuries have been reported but no fatalities.
At least three fires have burned nearly 13,000 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 9,000 residents in a 55-square-mile area. Only one fire is reported to be under limited control, and continued hot and dry weather is expected to fuel the blazes.
The evacuation included 1000 prisoners from the medium-security facility at Canyon City, and threatens the iconic suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge and Arkansas River. A tram cable near the bridge has already ignited, and the wooden-planked bridge will have to be inspected before reopening.
If Colorado experiences a repeat of last year’s destruction while federal crews are positioned in other states, Rey said the Forest Service has the authority to call up forces as far away as North Carolina but federal taxpayers would have to foot the bill for deployment costs.
“That means they will probably be spending more money at the end of the day,” Rey said. “North Carolina doesn’t send their state crews to Colorado for free, obviously.”
“Nobody said sequestration was a logical process, and (firefighting) would be one of the less logical places that are affected,” Rey said.
The Forest Service also has the authority to mobilize two Army battalions to assist in battling blazes. Already, two military cargo planes are in use in Colorado to assist 500 firefighters on the ground.
“I doubt they are going to run out of firefighters,” Rey said.
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week the firefighting workforce will be reduced to 10,000 this summer because of the budget cuts. Additionally, the White House has already proposed slashing next year’s hazardous fuels removal budget from $201 million to $116 million.
Federal forecasters have predicted this year’s fire potential to be above normal throughout the West.
Colorado suffered from a devastating fire season last year that killed five people, burned more than 200,000 acres destroying 600 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 34,000 residents.