BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday will announce $930 million for reducing wildfire dangers in 10 western states by clearing trees and underbrush from national forests, as officials struggle to contain destructive infernos that are being made worse by climate change.
Under a strategy now entering its second year, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to prevent out-of-control fires that start on public lands from raging through communities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged that the shortage of workers that’s been plaguing other sectors of the economy is hindering the agency’s wildfire efforts.
He warned that “draconian” budget cuts floated by some Republicans, who control the U.S. House, could also undermine the Democratic administration’s plans. Its goal is to lower wildfire risks across almost 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) of public and private lands over the next decade.
The work is projected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year’s climate and infrastructure bills combined directed about $5 billion to the effort.
“There’s one big ‘if,’” Vilsack said. “We need to have a good partner in Congress.”
He added that fires on public lands will continue to threaten the West, after burning some 115,000 square miles (297,000 square kilometers) over the past decade — an area larger than Arizona — and destroying about 80,000 houses and other structures, according to government statistics and the nonpartisan research group Headwaters Economics.
Almost 19,000 of those structures were torched in the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, Calif.
“It’s not a matter of whether or not these forests will burn,” Vilsack said. “The crisis is upon us.”