12:45pm

Fri October 12, 2012
Environment

USDA Chief: Wildfire Season Not Over

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the United States is experiencing its third biggest wildfire season on record, and with a blaze still burning out of control in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Secretary noted at a forest health summit in Denver Friday the season is far from over.

"I don't need to tell anyone here that the fire season in the state of Colorado has been devastating," Vilsack said, during a short speech at the state's 2012 Forest Health Summit.

In the wake of several large fires burning in the West, the US Forest Service recently rescinded a long-standing policy that allowed some fires to burn if they start naturally and aren’t threatening structures.  The agency, which Sec. Vilsack oversees as head of the USDA, said the severe drought gripping the West was behind the decision to now suppress every fire. 

Vilsack did not address the controversial, temporary policy change  at the summit, but he did use the occasion to warn that the current budget impasse in Congress poses serious threats to future funding for the government’s wildfire prevention and mitigation programs.

"If Congress fails to act before the end of the year, the sequester that Congress has triggered will go into effect," Vilsack said. "That will result in every line item of virtually every aspect of USDA being cut by at least 8.2%, that’s every line item, no ability to transfer or prioritize the cuts."

Meanwhile, on the state level, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced at the Friday event a decision to tap $1.3 million from a state wildfire fund to pay for rehabilitation and remediation work on land burned by the Lower North Fork Fire in March.

The wildfire started when erratic winds fanned flames from a Colorado State Forest Service prescribed burn in the foothills southwest of Denver.

"And that is mostly on private land," Hickenlooper said. "I think we’ve worked out a way that we are going to be able to get the burned timber off of that land fairly rapidly."

The money will primarily go to removing dead and burned trees from the area.  The Lower North Fork Fire destroyed almost two dozen homes and claimed three lives.