WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shrinking budgets mean fewer firefighters will be available this summer even as unusually dry weather has increased the risk of fire in much of the U.S. West, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned on Monday.
"As a result of sequester and across-the-board cuts we will have about 500 fewer firefighters at the Forest Service than we would otherwise have," said Vilsack.
Cuts known as sequestration are forcing government agencies to reduce spending. They went into effect on March 1 after a gridlocked Congress failed to resolve fiscal fights and find an alternative to the sequestration.
The Forest Service relied on 10,500 firefighters during last year's fire season.
With 48 percent of the continental United States under moderate to exceptional drought conditions and an insect blight having weakened western forests, the risk of fire is high as summer approaches, said Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service.
"That is a prescription for very serious conditions," he said.
Vilsack spoke with Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell in a conference call organized from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.
Uncommonly dry forests in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington state are full of woody fuel, officials said on the call.
California, too, is expected to be hard-hit. Nearly 850 wildfires had flared up in the state through the end of last month, far more than usual during the first four months of the year, officials say.
Vilsack and Jewell said the persistently hot, dry weather in some parts of the country was a reminder of the challenge that climate change poses.
"The twelve hottest years on record have been in the last fifteen years and that has been particularly true in the west," Jewell said.
Heavy rains have spared eastern states from serious fires so far, said Jeremy Sullens of the NIFC, "but it is a different story out west where you have had severe drought conditions for quite some time now."
About 70,000 communities are situated on the fringes of wilderness across the country and so are particularly vulnerable, officials said.
More terrain was scorched by fires last year than at any time since 1960, Vilsack said, and this summer is likely to be comparable.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Editing by Xavier Briand)