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Feds brace for another hot, expensive wildfire season

A firefighting helicopter flies over the Skibo fire near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., on Saturday afternoon, May 7, 2016. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top foresters on Tuesday warned of another hot, dry and costly wildfire season in 2016 with global climate change, droughts and more people living in the woods leading to more acres and more homes burned in more states.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell forecasted which parts of the nation are expected to see the most critical fires and laid out their plans to fight them -- with California listed as the most ripe for major disasters.

The region's five-year drought has killed 40 million trees in California, fire experts noted, which are now the perfect fuel for big fires to burn.

Officials said Great Lakes region forests appear headed to a "normal" fire year after adequate winter moisture -- but noted that short-term weather patterns could change that quickly, especially by late summer.

Tidwell noted that major fires already have broken out in northern Canada, in Alberta and Ontario. Those are areas that normally wouldn't see such intense fires this early in the year, Tidwell noted, and they show northern forests can burn even shortly after winter snows melt.

The fire forecast comes after another record year in 2015 that saw wildfires burn across more than 10 million acres, seven wildland firefighters killed and 4,500 U.S. homes destroyed or damaged. The Forest Service spent $2.6 billion fighting and preparing to fight fires in 2015, by far the most ever, with more than 68,000 wildfires across the U.S.

The federal officials said Tuesday that the job of battling fires has become "increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and a constrained budget environment in Washington" where the cost of firefighting is now eating up more than half the Forest Service budget, up from just 16 percent in 1995.

"We're headed to more than two-thirds (of the agency budget spent on fires) in just a few years," Vilsack said in a national media briefing Tuesday.

Forest Service officials have repeatedly asked Congress, so far without success, to set aside a special firefighting budget so the agency has some money left to do more forest planning, planting, tourism-related and ecological projects that have all declined as fires eat up more money.

"It's time for Congress to once and for all fix the fire budget," Vilsack said, adding that inaction by Congress will continue to place more homes and people at risk.

Officials said the problem of more intense and expensive fires, mostly in western states, has national implications, including in Minnesota and Wisconsin forests, as the agency is robbed of non-fire personnel and money -- leaving far less funding and staff for campgrounds, wildlife research, timber harvest and other programs.

Vilsack said climate change has led to fire seasons that are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970, and the average number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980.

The expectation now each year is that "some state is going to have the worst fire they have ever had" because of climate change conditions, Vilsack said.

The number of fires that grow beyond 25,000 acres has increased five-fold since 1970.

"This is the new normal" with intense fires that burn hotter, faster and bigger than just a few decades ago, Tidwell said.

Fires are causing more damage each year as more and more people live in or near forests -- some 44 million homes nationally, Vilsack noted.

This year the Forest Service has access to 10,000 firefighters, 900 fire engines, 300 helicopters, 21 airtankers, two water scoopers and other aerial supervision aircraft. Together with federal, state and local partners, the Forest Service can move those resources where needed. Minnesota, for example, has more than a dozen aircraft on hand to battle fires as well as hundreds of state firefighters and fire engines.

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