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There's unprecedented funding for fire prevention this summer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The summer wildfire season is getting started in western states. So far, there have been just a handful of wildfires. Forecasters are predicting an even-hotter-than-average summer, and some states had a drier-than-average winter. Still, forest managers have more money than usual for wildfire prevention. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho is the nation's wildfire command center. Grant Beebe, one of the top bosses here, is feeling pretty comfortable right now about summer. Most of the West had a decent winter's worth of snow, but there is a caveat.

GRANT BEEBE: Hopefully we're looking at a - kind of a normal - I'm going to air-quote that - a "normal" Western fire season, which is, you know, more or less 3 to 4 months in duration and not 6 to 8 months.

SIEGLER: Now they have the data, but they've also got gut instinct. Last summer was a pretty quiet fire season on the mainland U.S., especially in California, so no one's really banking on that to happen again, especially in the outliers of eastern Oregon and Washington and western Montana that had dry winters.

BEEBE: The farther north you go from Boise, Idaho, for instance, the drier it gets. When you get into Canada, it's still dry, as it was last year, so...

SIEGLER: Which means a good chance for a lot of wildfire smoke to spread into the lower 48 again.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKIE-TALKIE STATIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sounds good. Yeah. Hey, thanks for the heads-up.

SIEGLER: Right now, though, agencies are feeling good about the slow start to the summer fire season because it's allowing them to do more prevention work. The 2021 infrastructure law means there's an unprecedented amount of money pouring in for thinning and controlled burning in forests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Need help with that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.

SIEGLER: National forest crews have done fuels treatments on more than a million acres of forests across the West, but there's still a backlog of at least 20 million more acres. In the mountains near Boise, it's that brief time after the snow melts and before the heat arrives.

DANNY KURTH: Four-three-one, firing trainee.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hey. Update for you - we're up at...

SIEGLER: This Boise National Forest crew, led by Danny Kurth, is lighting a controlled burn.

KURTH: We got a pretty good two-week window here that they're trying to get some good burning done.

SIEGLER: On this hillside above the town of Idaho City, they're trying to clear out all the dense underbrush and small pine trees that are clustered together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL CLANGING)

SIEGLER: The idea is that if an actual unplanned wildfire moves through here, it might slow down, giving firefighters a chance to save the town.

KURTH: You know, you get a large fire - you're trying to reduce the fuels and slow that fire. And so we can actually fight that fire and take care of the community rather it just ripping right through a community.

SIEGLER: There's more pressure than ever on wildland firefighters these days as more homes and even whole towns are built out into overgrown forests that are getting even drier with climate change. The work is dangerous. Grant Beebe, the federal fire manager, says that's a big reason why it's getting harder to retain and recruit a workforce. Federal agencies have been reporting labor shortages of 25% on average coming into summer. Legislation to permanently boost wildland firefighter pay and add mental health benefits has been stalled for close to two years now in Congress.

BEEBE: Those resources that have allowed us to do more fuels work, to hire more people, to pay them better - that's got to be permanent 'cause this fire world that we're living in now isn't going away. We got to permanently figure out how to deal with it.

SIEGLER: And commit, Beebe says, over the next several generations.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.