We should not be lulled into a false sense of security with this upcoming fire season. —Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of a potentially severe wildfire season this summer in much of the West and Pacific Northwest led Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other top officials Monday to plead with homeowners to protect their property.
"It's pretty scary for folks on the ground here," said Jewell in a teleconference at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
"We are facing another dangerous fire season. We are prepared to fight the fires," Jewell said, but he noted that the federal reductions in spending have strained the resources of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed the concern, saying there will be 500 fewer firefighters on the ground this season and 50 fewer fire engines.
The agencies, he added, are trying to do the best job they can "with the resources we have."
As of May 3, there have been 13,115 wildfires that have burned 153,000 acres — down somewhat from last year — but that decrease should not be wrongly interpreted, Vilsack said.
"We should not be lulled into a false sense of security with this upcoming fire season."
Jewell said the 12 hottest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years, particularly in the West, making it even more incumbent on property owners to be proactive in fire prevention.
Ernest Mitchell, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Administration's Fire Administration, urged property owners to adopt a list of strategies provided on a website offered by the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition.
The coalition, made up of several entities that include the Forest Service and FEMA, details safety checklists such as cleaning debris from rain gutters, installation of roof coverings and putting protective screens on roof vents.
Other steps include clearing brush and other hazards in the establishment of a "home protection zone." The coalition also offers homeowners the option of taking an assessment to determine their own individual risk.
"We need the public's assistance," Mitchell said. " We are encouraging them to implement fire prevention and fire preparedness efforts."
He added that the message the agencies are trying to get out is that "fire is everyone's fight," and government and individuals have their own roles to play.
Jewell said agencies have to concentrate suppression efforts on wildfires that threaten homes and other property — and other public lands with critical wildlife habitat, or watershed and recreational values go begging.
"That is the tradeoff we have to make," she said.