WASHINGTON — Across-the-board budget cuts are leaving federal agencies with fewer firefighters and less equipment to battle the nation's wildfires this summer.
Yet the upfront savings could mask hidden costs because those agencies will ultimately spend whatever they must in what is already a deadly fire season, say government officials and others.
The U.S. Forest Service's $2 billion firefighting budget, the government's mainstay against wildfires, has been whittled by 5 percent. Agency officials said that has meant 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines than last year.
The Interior Department's $832 million firefighting program was pared by $37.5 million, savings it is achieving by filling 100 fewer seasonal firefighting positions and eliminating other jobs as well, officials said.
Cuts in most government programs, called a sequester, were triggered by a deficit-reduction standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. They come at the start of a fire season fueled by a prolonged Western drought and that officials expect to resemble last year's, when 68,000 fires burned a near-record 9.3 million acres.
"The fire seasons, they're hotter, they're drier and they're longer" than in the past, Thomas Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month.
Last weekend, a wildfire killed 19 members of an elite firefighting crew outside Yarnell, Ariz. As of Thursday, more than 22,000 wildfires have burned more than 1.7 million acres across the country, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, which helps oversee federal firefighting efforts.
The Forest Service and Interior Department don't stop fighting fires when they drain their firefighting funds. Instead, they draw money from other parts of their budgets, which could include programs for removing dried brush and dead trees from dry areas to make future fires less likely and less intense.
"When we have emergencies burning, the U.S. government will continue to spend money on firefighting, even if they don't have the money," said Christopher Topik, director of the Restoring America's Forests project for The Nature Conservancy, the environmental group. "So then they'll take it out of these other kinds of accounts, which are the ones that actually reduce the risk. That's what will end up happening, and that's not a good policy."
Kim Thorsen, an Interior Department official, told the Senate Energy panel that the budget cuts have already forced her agency to make "difficult choices" including hiring seasonal firefighters for shorter periods and reducing the number of crews that remove dead trees.
"The long-term impacts of the sequester are impossible to avoid," she said.
Other Interior officials said that, including the seasonal firefighters, the department will have 250 fewer positions in its fire programs, including planners and computer specialists.
The Forest Service's Tidwell told the Senate panel that from 2002 to 2012, his agency transferred $2.7 billion from other programs to pay for fighting fires, $2.3 billion of which Congress eventually restored. That "still led to disruptions within all Forest Service programs," he told the senators.
Congressional aides said that because of the sequester, the Fire Service's suppression fund – which pays for overtime and other costs of fighting wildfires – has been cut from $538 million this year to $510 million. The service was also facing a $50 million cut in its fire preparedness budget, the fund used to hire firefighters and buy equipment.
Together, the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, have around 13,000 firefighters.
Officials said the across-the-board cuts have had no direct impact on the 110 Hotshot crews around the country, the highly trained units based mostly in the West who respond to the worst wildfires. Most are financed and trained by the Fire Service and some by the Interior Department, but a handful – like the Arizona crew whose members died – are run locally.
"I don't know of any Hotshot crew that's been disbanded or not filled or been mothballed because of the sequester," said Tom Nichols, division chief for fire and aviation management of the National Park Service, a part of the Interior Department. "Because they really are our first line and our elite line for dealing with wildfires."
Also affected by the cuts is the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund, from which Washington provides aid for victims of hurricanes and other disasters and reimburses state and local governments for some of their firefighting costs. The sequester pared that $10 billion fund by nearly $1 billion.