The tragedy came without warning. Wind split the Arizona wildfire in two, trapping 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots between twin walls of flame that would take their lives.
The erosion of U.S. firefighting resources has been much more gradual, building through years of tighter budgets just as wildfires have grown more intense.
Since 2000, U.S. wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) a year, up from an average of 3.3 million acres (1.3 million hectares) in the 1990s, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
In recent years, money to fight those fires has been tight. The Washington budget cuts often called “sequestration” chopped 5 percent from the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management Budget in fiscal 2013, reducing the number of firefighters to 10,000 from 10,500, NIFC spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said. Fifty fire engines were removed from service. The budget for fire prevention by eliminating dry brush and other types of fuel has fallen each of the last three years, from $350 million in 2010 to $301 million in 2013, she said.
“We’re really setting ourselves up for disaster,” said Bill Dougan, a former Forest Service firefighter who is now president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Neither Dougan nor other experts consulted by Reuters would connect Sunday’s Arizona tragedy with budget cuts. Shifting winds present a danger to any team fighting a wildfire, and the investigation of what happened to the Hotshots – a unique local government team doing work more often handled by the federal government – was far from complete.
However, the five U.S. government entities that fight wildfires must accomplish more with less money. The technology to fight forest and brush fires has changed little in decades while drought, human encroachment on frontier lands and higher temperatures have created greater risks.
“We are dealing with a different world of firefighting than we were 15 years ago,” said NIFC spokesman Randy Eardley.
The problem demands more than money, said Bill Stewart, co-director of the University of California Center for Fire Research and Outreach. The budget has been generally sufficient as long as fires are limited to one state at a time, Stewart said, and prevention campaigns are prone to stalling when opponents discover it means destroying plant life that is either habitat for wildlife or aesthetically pleasing to humans.
Wildfire crises tend to provoke calls for a unified strategy within the U.S. government when experimenting with different approaches might yield better results, Stewart said.
“If we’d had a little bit more innovation out there we might have learned something in the past 10 years,” Stewart said. “There’s very little research and development in firefighting. It’s a very conservative area, and historically it’s been vastly underfunded.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Jim Loney)
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