Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today made aerial assessments of fires in New Mexico and Arizona and toured burned areas in the two-state region.
The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages fire response and suppression in our nation’s 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. The Forest Service currently has nearly 9,000 personnel assigned to more than 130 wildfires across the United States, and most are concentrated on wildfires burning in the Southern and Southwest regions of the United States, from Arizona to Florida.
“The fires that have raged throughout the Southwest this year have been some of the worst in years,” said Vilsack. “The U.S. Forest Service is heavily engaged with federal, state and local partners in fighting these fires. Today, the Arizona fires are more than 90 percent controlled and we’re making progress in New Mexico, a testament to the men and women, many of them from the Forest Service, who put themselves in harm’s way to help protect our land, our property, our communities and – most importantly – the American people.”
The Secretary’s trip included an aerial tour of the Las Conchas fire, blazing 12 miles from Los Alamos, N.M., as well as a fly-over of the Wallow fire, which started a month ago in Arizona and has moved into New Mexico. Incident commanders say that, as of this morning, the Pacheco fire has burned some 46,000 acres. Arizona’s Wallow fire covered over 500,000 acres and is 93 percent contained.
“I saw for myself the aftermath of the Wallow fire on a stand of trees that had been previously thinned in order to improve forest health,” said Vilsack. “Where the Forest Service had worked to remove excess fuel, I saw healthy trees with burned underbrush. In the lands that were untouched by thinning practices, the fire left only scorched earth behind. It is clear that forest restoration work can make a significant impact on reducing the fuel for these fires.”
Vilsack said that, while it may not be possible to avoid wildfire, the best way to minimize impact of fire on communities is by managing vegetation and restoring the forests to healthier, fire-resistant landscapes.
To that end, Vilsack explained that he is working with the Forest Service to lay out an ambitious program for managing America’s forests, focusing on restoration and conservation by forming partnerships to help maintain the health of all forest lands, public and private, whether or not USDA manages them directly. This approach, Vilsack said, will not only create jobs promoting healthier natural and water resources, but it will reduce the risk of large and dangerous wildfires.
Before fires start
Working through cross-jurisdictional partnerships before a fire starts rather than relying on suppression alone is one strategy Vilsack cited. Community partnerships with the Forest Service have an array of tools at their disposal. The National Fire Protection Association's Firewise Communities program, for instance, teaches homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others ways to protect people and property from wildfire.
In May, USDA announced a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy which hopes to engage all levels of government and non-governmental organizations, as well as the public, to seek national, all-lands solutions to wildland fire management issues. USDA also supports the Four Forest Initiative, a northern Arizona project which will work with a host of public and private sector organizations to restore Ponderosa pine across hundreds of thousands of acres on four national forests.
Already this year, over a million acres of Forest Service lands have burned in the American Southwest, as well as another 600,000 acres of federal, state and private lands, costing millions of dollars in immediate fire response and many millions more in restoration and rehabilitation in the months and years ahead.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.