In May, Obama administration officials warned that sequester cuts would inhibit the nation’s ability to effectively fight wildfires in the West. On Sunday 19 firefighters died battling a fast-moving wildfire in central Arizona while trying to save a small town—the largest number of firefighters killed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
While budget decisions did not play a direct role in their deaths, we do know that budget cuts are putting the lives of our firefighters and those who live in and near forests at an unacceptably high risk.
Administration officials warned Congress months ago that the sequester would weaken wildfire management during a season with what the National Interagency Fire Center calls in a report released today an “above normal significant fire potential.” Indeed, the Arizona fire began in the midst of severe drought conditions in the area. Yet, Congress has yet to act.
The automatic spending cuts have forced the U.S. Forest Service to shed 500 firefighters, between 50 and 70 fire trucks and two aircrafts in this year’s budget. The sequester will leave agencies $115 million short of normal firefighting capacity, meaning that 200,000 fewer acres will be treated to prevent fires.
The firefighters killed were part of the Prescott, Ariz., Fire Department, who lost about 20 percent of their staff in the tragedy. This year, the fire department has already had to cut funding for wildland firefighters by 6.9 percent, reducing firefighters from three to one. Local fire departments on the state level have been unable to fill in funding cut by the sequester, leaving them more vulnerable to accidents.
We already have 19 brave men and women dead and a town devastated. Jan Brewer, Arizona’s governor, released a statement saying, “When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind.”
We can do more. We can repeal the sequester to ensure that future tragedies like Sunday’s do not occur.
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