Hundreds of Federal Personnel Aiding in Fighting California Wildfires

A car destroyed by the fires near Napa, California. A car destroyed by the fires near Napa, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Federal agencies have hundreds of firefighters working to put out flames raging throughout California, officials said Tuesday, aiding in efforts to contain blazes that have devastated large portions of the state.

The Forest Service has about 500 personnel combating the fires, which have burned through more than 100,000 acres of land and killed at least 15 people in northern California. The Agriculture Department employees are assisting with Cal Fire and local jurisdictions on those blazes, as well several large incidents in National Forests they maintain. While the fires in Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties have garnered national headlines in recent days, several have also torched massive areas in Forest Service lands.

Those have primarily avoided large population centers, but have still required the attention of hundreds of Forest Service employees. Most recently, the Pier Fire in Sequoia National Forest has burned more than 36,000 acres and sparked the deployment of more than 200 federal firefighters. They are mostly Forest Service employees, but also include Bureau of Land Management personnel.

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In addition to BLM, Forest Service is regularly coordinating with the National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and incident meteorologists at the National Weather Service, according to Stanton Florea, an agency spokesman in California.

The Forest Service has deployed about 75 of its California-based firefighters to Puerto Rico, who are currently assisting in the federal response to Hurricane Maria. The agency has redeployed some resources to California to help with wildfire suppression efforts, including 100 Nevada-based firefighters now in the embattled state.

About 80 agency personnel are currently assisting with Canyon Fire Two, which is burning in Anaheim. That wildfire has burned 7,500 acres and destroyed more than a dozen structures. The Forest Service has sent six aircraft, three helicopters and five fire engines to assist with those efforts. The agency maintains 24-hour staffing in southern California fire stations due to the frequency of wildfires in the area, Florea said.

Despite all the simultaneous fires throughout the state, he added, federal resources are “not stretched thin.” The Forest Service and its federal partners have grown used to California having a “year-round fire season now,” and the agency maintains a cadre of 5,000 firefighters in the state. Vice President Mike Pence, who visited a California Emergency Services office in Sacramento on Tuesday, tweeted that more Forest Service personnel were soon on the way to assist in the suppression efforts.

President Trump on Tuesday approved an expedited disaster declaration for California, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, in addition to Fire Management Assistance Grants.

“The administration is working closely with state and local officials to ensure the people of California are receiving the support they need,” Sanders said.

Trump has already sent a request to Congress for $576 million in additional funding for wildfire suppression as part of an emergency request for disaster relief appropriations. The Trump administration has called on wildfire fighting to permanently move off its budget and into emergency disaster relief accounts. Fire containment now consumes 57 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, compared to just 16 percent in fiscal 1995. That rate is unsustainable, USDA has said since the Obama administration, and inhibits the department from adequately investing in wildfire prevention.  

Officials were optimistic Tuesday, as peak winds of 60 miles per hour have since slowed dramatically. The reduced winds and cooler temperatures have significantly helped containment efforts.

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