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Federal fire officials brace for active wildfire season

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Some parts of the United States, particularly the West, could face an active wildfire season this year, federal officials have warned, adding that they’re prepared for the challenge.

In a telephone news conference this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said their agencies were braced for the expected wildfires. The season is likely to be as active as last year’s, they said, when the Southwest was hit especially hard.

“We are ready to meet the challenge,” Vilsack said. “Our concern does not stop at the border of federal lands, but rather a strategy that is an all-lands approach for safety and wildfire management.”

Joining the Cabinet secretaries on the call Thursday were FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Ed Delgado of the National Interagency Fire Center.

More than 15,000 firefighters will be available this year, officials said, including permanent and seasonal federal and state employees, crews from tribal and local governments, contract crews, and temporary hires.

Areas with ongoing drought conditions, such as much of the Southwest, are especially threatened, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

“Severe to extreme drought conditions continue for much of eastern New Mexico, western Texas, parts of the upper Midwest and much of the Southeast coast,” the center warned. “Worsening drought was occurring over much of the Southwest, including California and the Great Basin.”

Fuel dryness is also a concern, the center noted: “Heavy loadings of fine fuels across the central U.S. coupled with pre-greenup conditions are causing control problems and leading to some increased fire behavior when coupled with wind events.”

On average, the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior respond to more than 20,000 wildfires a year, officials said. The agencies have a combined budget of more than $2.8 billion for fighting fires, officials said.

“Federal firefighters, aircraft and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the nation. Firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial attack capabilities,” said Forest Service Chief Tidwell. “In addition, we are in the midst of conducting accelerated restoration activities nationwide that will result in healthier forests and will lessen fire risks in years to come.”

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