DENVER (AP) — The Southwest and Northwest could face potentially catastrophic wildfires this summer, despite an unusually wet May over much of the nation, the Obama administration has warned.
"We've been very fortunate here in the central part of the country to have above-normal precipitation to allow us to postpone the fire season," U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said at a news conference Tuesday in Denver.
But as the summer heat dries out forests and rangeland, the fire danger will rise, said Tidwell, who joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the Denver briefing.
Southern Arizona and drought-stricken California are especially vulnerable to large, costly fires, Tidwell said. Washington, Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana will face increasing fire danger later in the summer, he said.
Conditions in Washington could be similar to last year, when the Carlton Complex fire destroyed 300 homes, making it the worst wildfire in state history, Tidwell said.
Jewell said climate change and drought are to blame for worsening wildfires, which she said destroy homes and businesses, threaten power grids and drinking water and cause damage river valleys that cost millions and take decades to restore.
"There's a lot at stake for everyone," she said.
The Agriculture and Interior departments said federal firefighting costs are expected to range from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion this year. The high end would exceed their combined firefighting budget of about $1.4 billion.
If the costs exceed their firefighting budgets, the departments would have to transfer money from programs meant to reduce long-term fire danger by improving the health of forests and rangelands.
Vilsack, Jewell and Tidwell again asked Congress to allow the administration to take the cost of fighting the worst wildfires out of federal disaster funds, rather than their firefighting budgets, to protect long-term fire prevention programs.
The Obama administration says the worst 1 percent of all wildfires account for about 30 percent of federal firefighting costs.
"These are emergencies," Jewell said. "They should be treated as such."
She said the proposal has bipartisan support but the administration hasn't been able to persuade Congress to act.
Vilsack added, "It's not asking about new money. It's about spending the existing resources a different way."
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday proposed a budget of $3.6 billion for both wildland firefighting and prevention for the fiscal year that starts in October, $52 million more than the current budget, committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.
The measure doesn't change the way major fires are paid for, which brought criticism from Tidwell.
"We're disappointed that we didn't have the committee understanding precisely what's at play here," he said.
Hing said changing the way wildfires are paid for would require Congress to revise laws that govern the budget process and disaster recovery spending.
Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said funding isn't the answer to the worsening wildfire problem.
"Throwing more money at it, without changing management practices, does not cut it," said Bishop, a Utah Republican. "The Forest Service must start thinking creatively. There must be a change in the mindset and a change in their management."
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