Financial Crises

Feds say sequester won't impact effort to control Calif. wildfire

FILE: Sept. 4, 2013: A  Hotshot fire crew member rests near a controlled burn operation at Horseshoe Meadows, near Yosemite National Park in California. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

FILE: Sept. 4, 2013: A Hotshot fire crew member rests near a controlled burn operation at Horseshoe Meadows, near Yosemite National Park in California. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.  (AP)

The efforts to control the massive California wildfire that has spread into Yosemite National Park -- and has already cost $81 million to fight -- will not be impacted by the austere federal budget cuts known as sequester, according to the Interior Department.

An Interior official told the agency remains within its wildfire-fighting budget and is able to fight the blaze in full force.

Furthermore, the agency has emergency authority to move resources from other accounts -- flexibility severely limited by the across-the-board sequester cuts. But right now, it has no such plans, said Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw.

However, Kershaw acknowledged the agency has felt the impact of sequester, cuts upon which Washington Democrats and Republicans were forced to agree last year after failing to strike a deal on more measured reductions.

“As a result of sequestration, Interior's fiscal 2013 total fire budget was cut by 7 percent, which means we’re currently operating with fewer firefighters and fewer engines,” she told

Kershaw also said the agency has found ways to cut expenses without compromising its ability to fight fires this season.

The cost-saving measures include not filling permanent staff vacancies, reducing seasonal-firefighter employment periods and reducing the number of hazardous fuels crews.

Cuts also were made to the wild land fire management program including reductions in travel, non-essential training, contracts and supplies. However, exceptions from the agency-wide hiring freeze were made to pay for seasonal firefighters. 

Now the third largest fire in California history, the inferno that started Aug. 17 when a hunter's illegal fire swept out of control has burned 385 square miles of timber, meadows and sensitive wildlife habitat. Full containment is not expected until Sept. 20.

Beyond the $81 million need to fight the fire, tens of millions of dollars more will be needed just to repair the environmental damage, officials said.

In addition, California Gov. Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency, which could result in the federal government spending more on cleanup and other costs should the White House conclude the wildfire is a federal disaster.

Meanwhile, environmental scientists this weekend are beginning the critical work of protecting habitat and waterways before the fall rainy season beings.

Members of the federal Burned Area Emergency Response team begin hiking the rugged Sierra Nevada terrain before embers cool so they can identify areas at the highest risk for erosion into streams, the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir -- San Francisco's famously pure water supply.

About 5 square miles of the burned area is in the watershed of the municipal reservoir serving 2.8 million people - the only one in a national park.

"That's 5 square miles of watershed with very steep slopes," said Alex Janicki, the Stanislaus National Forest BAER response coordinator. "We are going to need some engineering to protect them."

In key areas with a high potential for erosion ecologists can dig ditches to divert water, plant native trees and grasses, and spray costly hydro-mulch across steep canyon walls in the most critical places.

Federal officials have amassed a team of 50 scientists, more than twice what is usually deployed to assess wildfire damage. Janicki hopes that with so many people performing assessment they will have a preliminary report ready in two weeks so that remediation can start before the first storms.

Fire officials still have not released the name of the hunter responsible for starting the blaze.

On Friday Kent Delbon, the lead investigator, would not characterize what kind of fire the hunter had set or how they had identified the suspect.

Delbon said the Forest Service announced the cause of the fire before being able to release details in order to end rumors started by a local fire chief that the blaze ignited in an illegal marijuana garden.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.