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Fire season has left federal agencies over budget and exhausted resources

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Posted at 9:13 PM, Aug 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-22 23:27:50-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Federal agencies are breaking budgets and exhausting resources to fight wildfires that have burned more than 3 million acres around the country. As fires continue to burn in Utah and elsewhere, it’s only expected to get more costly.

Currently, the U.S. Forest Service is nearly $500 million over its firefighting budget, bringing the total to almost $1 billion, according to Mike Ferris, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Interagency Fire Center.

Because of the congressional sequester, they and other federal agencies had fewer people to work with this fire season.

“We always could use more people,” Ferris said. “And of course, there’s always never going to be enough.”

According to the latest reports, there have been 32,000 fires nationally, which is about 60 percent of the average for the past 10 years.  Ferris believes the frequency of fires in the western region of the country has made extinguishing them more difficult than in previous wildfire seasons. Crews are battling 51 large fires around the nation, spreading state and federal resources thin.

“In spite of the lack of funds, or the withdrawal of funds through the sequester this year, we still have to be strategic as we can,” he said.

On Tuesday, the wildfire danger, nationally, was upgraded to “Preparedness Level 5,” which means there is potential for resources to be exhausted.

The last time the country reached that level was in 2008, but according to Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Utah was declared a “Level 5” weeks ago.

“You look at Patch Springs, you look at Rockport, Millville, each one of those instances, State Fire, they all had structures threatened, people’s homes threatened,” Curry said.

The intensity of the fires in Utah prompted Gov. Gary Herbert to call in the Utah National Guard to assist. During his taped monthly news conference on Thursday, the governor first began by thanking firefighters for their assistance in the state.

“We can’t say enough good about our firefighters,” the governor said. “We have 25 crews, 20 personnel each. It’s a tough job. They get up at 5:30 in the morning, have a pack on their back,  40 to 60 pounds, loaded with shovels, chainsaws, fuel, canisters, equipment and they go out there and face danger.”

The extra man power was crucial throughout the state, where more fires and shared resources came at a cost to some state residents.