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Vilsack Speaks on Bone-Dry California

Saturday, May 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sharon Leach
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Vilsack fears 'serious situation' in bone-dry Calif.

Marc Heller, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The coming wildfire season will be especially severe in California and the Southwest, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today, as the Department of Agriculture continues to press Congress to change the way it pays for firefighting.

"We're very concerned about California," Vilsack said. The state has an estimated 40 million dead trees -- 29 million of which died just last year -- to serve as potential fuel for forest fires, he said on a conference call with reporters.

If conditions remain dry in California, Vilsack said, "you're looking at a very serious situation."

Even if rainfall were to return to normal in California, the state would need more than a year to recover from a drought that has lasted five years, said Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, who joined Vilsack on the call.

The forecast comes as USDA officials coordinate efforts for the fire season. Tidwell and Vilsack met with regional foresters today to discuss plans for the season, USDA said.

Anticipating a busy fire season, the Forest Service has transferred $30 million to treating high-risk areas, Vilsack said. The Forest Service and the Interior Department spent about $2.6 billion last year on firefighting, he said.

USDA said it has 10,000 firefighters available, as well as 900 fire engines, 300 helicopters and 21 air tankers.

Officials blame climate change for the growing wildfire problem. The fire season is now 78 days longer than it was in 1970, and the number of acres burned annually has doubled since 1980.

In addition, Vilsack said, the number of large fires has grown sharply since 1970.

The Forest Service spent 52 percent of its budget on fires last year, and appears headed toward eventually spending two-thirds on fires, Vilsack said. More Forest Service employees work on fires than on forest management that could prevent them, he said.

Vilsack said he continues to urge Congress to establish a disaster funding account for firefighting, to end the department's practice of borrowing from other parts of the budget.

"Congress has got to get this done," Vilsack said.