ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Federal officials on Thursday released the latest iteration of their national wildfire management strategy as they deal with limited resources and an active fire season that already has blackened hundreds of square miles in states from New Mexico to Michigan.
The U.S Department of Agriculture and the Interior Department have been working for more than a year to develop the strategy. The latest phase covers assessments done for the West, the Northeast and the Southeast that identify population trends, climate changes and different priorities that will help with the creation of action plans due next spring.
With the increase in larger, more catastrophic wildfires over the past decade, USDA Under Secretary Harris Sherman told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday that setting priorities will be key.
"It's not going away," Sherman said of the threat of wildfire. "We're going to have to be more comprehensive and smarter in how we deal with these issues in the future."
He noted the need for government agencies to be proactive in their efforts to protect not only property but vital resources such as watersheds that provide drinking water.
Development of the strategy comes as firefighters grapple with overgrown forests and another consecutive year of dry, windy conditions. Currently, they are battling 20 large fires across the country. They range from a few hundred acres in South Dakota to more than 263,500 acres in New Mexico.
The New Mexico blaze has finally stalled at about 412 square miles in the Gila National Forest after burning for weeks. Nearly 1,000 firefighters continue to patrol the lines and watch for flare-ups on the fire, the largest in the state's recorded history.
A dozen cabins were destroyed by the lightning-sparked fire, and surrounding communities are concerned about flooding that could result from summer rains washing ash, soil and charred debris down steep, denuded mountainsides.
In northern New Mexico, crews were making progress against a pair of fires burning in the Santa Fe National Forest. The blazes were threatening no communities, but they sent up plumes of smoke that sparked memories of last year's record-setting season.
Firefighters were wrapping up a 227-acre wildfire in northern Colorado on Thursday, while extreme weather caused problems for crews trying to corral a 6,000-acre blaze in Wyoming's Medicine Bow National Forest.
In Michigan, firefighters continued to secure lines and protect structures from a blaze that burned about 33 square miles. Nearly 50 homes, a motel, a store and dozens of sheds and garages were destroyed.
Besides property, Sherman said there's much at stake when it comes to how federal, state and local agencies prepare for and manage fire. He pointed to the need to protect watersheds, saying more than half of the drinking water in the U.S. comes from public and private forests.
Sherman used the 2002 Hayman fire near Denver as an example. The largest fire in that state's recorded history, the blaze sent significant amounts of sediment into one of the city's main storage reservoirs, and tens of millions of dollars were spent dredging it.
"The cost of dealing with the aftermath of this fire far exceeded what proactive steps might have been taken at the outset to prevent those types of things from happening," he said.
Federal officials said the wildland fire management strategy is aimed at giving local agencies and community leaders a voice in setting priorities and developing solutions in light of the different challenges in the three regions.
Randy Dye, president of the National Association of State Foresters, said in a statement that having a broad discussion with the states about the nation's fire problems is a step in the right direction.
In the Northeast, a lack of fire was among the concerns identified in the report, while land ownership changes and the capacity of rural fire departments were listed as some of the challenges in the Southeast.
In the West, the report states land managers and communities have been dealing with more uncharacteristically large fires, protections for endangered plants and animals, the spread of invasive species and the decline of logging and other industries that use the forests.
National Cohesive Strategy: http://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM