Secretary of Agriculture discusses wildfire season with regional forest officials

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with the nation’s regional forest heads on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming wildfire season. This year is expected to be worse than average in the Southwest US, Alaska and Hawaii.

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The US Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department. Last year, the Forest Service spent more than $1.7 billion fighting fires, which burned 15,800 square miles nationwide. Seven firefighters died in the line of duty last season. State fire information officer Tim Mowry says Alaska is included in the high fire risk because of weather patterns.

“A lot of that is based on climate models, national climate models, that show that Alaska is expected to have warmer temperatures, warmer drier temperatures, in April and May, heading into the fire season,” Mowry said. “As well as just the lack of snow and the warm temperatures we had this winter. ”

In Alaska, fire-fighting duties are shared between the state and the federal Bureau of Land Management. Mowry said the Forest Service plays a minimal role here.

“The lower 48, most of the firefighting effort revolves around the Forest Service because they have so much land in National Forest down there, so a lot of the fires are burning in national forests,” Mowry said. “In Alaska the Forest Service handles fires in the Chugach National Forest and the Tongass National Forest. And they also have resources that the state and the federal suppression agencies tap into when needed and available.”

Last year,two wildfires near Cooper Landing scorched more than 700 acres of Chugach National Forest land, closing campgrounds in late June.

Due to droughts, climate change and a shrinking federal budget, the job of firefighting has become increasingly difficult for the Forest Service nationwide, Secretary Vilsack said. Fire seasons now stretch 78 days longer than in 1970, and the average number of acres burned has doubled since 1980.

The result is the fire service’s firefighting budget is exhausted before the end of the season. Ten years ago, the Forest Service spent 16% of its budget on fire suppression, while last year it spent 56%. The next decade, it is estimated that 67% of the budget will be spent on fires.

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APTI Reporter-Producer Ellen Lockyer started her radio career in the late 1980s, after a stint at bush Alaska weekly newspapers, the Copper Valley Views and the Cordova Times. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Valdez Public Radio station KCHU needed a reporter, and Ellen picked up the microphone.
Since then, she has literally traveled the length of the state, from Attu to Eagle and from Barrow to Juneau, covering Alaska stories on the ground for the AK show, Alaska News Nightly, the Alaska Morning News and for Anchorage public radio station, KSKA
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