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The coming wildfire season looks tough for most of the western United States

The coming wildfire season looks tough for most of the western United States, but western Montana firefighters are expecting an average summer on the fire line.

MISSOULA — The coming wildfire season looks tough for most of the western United States, but western Montana firefighters are expecting an average summer on the fire line.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warned on Monday that national budget cuts mean 500 fewer ground personnel on fire lines this summer. They added money would be tight for preseason hazardous-fuels removal and postseason restoration work.

“There are trade-offs that we make,” Jewell said during a national teleconference. “The ability to reduce that fuel load is being significantly impacted by budget cuts we’re experiencing. We’re not following the ‘ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure’ rule to the extent we wish we were able to. For example, in a bad fire year, we shouldn’t have to take it out of existing budgets. We should have emergency funds, so we can still do fuel-load and remediation work.”

The national forecast called for “above normal significant wildland fire potential to develop across portions of southwestern Montana and northern Idaho.” While it reported improved mountain snowpack and cool spring conditions, it also found severe drought conditions spreading into western and southwestern Montana.

“Soil moisture in this area is near record-low values,” the forecast said. “This is the same area that usually has a high likelihood for lightning activity.”

Elsewhere in the West, a dry winter and early warming has created conditions for a fire season that could begin earlier than usual and burn as much as last year, where states like New Mexico and Oregon posted new records for burned acreage.

Crews already have fought blazes in California and Colorado. Barring any dramatic weather changes, the fire season is projected to start a month earlier than usual for Oregon, southern Washington, central Idaho and Montana.

Conditions are also ripe for above-normal fire potential in Arizona and New Mexico, but forecasters say late-season rains could tone down the Southwest fire season at least until late summer.

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In the Lolo National Forest around Missoula, 2013 has already recorded 20 small fires. Forest fire management officer Laura Ward said most of those were escaped debris burns, but the season was just getting going.

“We’ve been working with an operating budget that’s relatively flat for three years,” Ward said Monday. “We’ll be hiring the same number of firefighters, the same engines and helicopters as we did last year. Our staffing level for the Lolo National Forest will be the same.”

Bitterroot National Forest fire management officer Rick Floch said he was happy to see his region get a late-spring boost in snowpack. He also was interested to see how last year’s widespread fire activity affected blazes this year.

“The whole border with the Salmon-Challis (National Forest) was pretty well all burned,” Floch said. “We won’t have fires there in a while. For the next five or 10 years, we’re looking real safe on that end of the forest.”

The 2012 fire season scorched about 43,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest, in addition to another 93,000 acres of fires on adjoining forests that slopped over the boundaries. Those burns have created a patchwork of scars that limit where new forest fires can burn.

Floch said a decade of fuels treatment work also has shown dividends along the Bitterroot Face where private land abuts Forest Service territory.

“With the Downing Mountain and Sawtooth fires, both burned right up to places where people had thinned,” Floch said. “Then the fires dropped to the ground, and we were able to get to them. We’ll continue to have fires coming from southwest into the valley. But with all the activity we’ve done, we’re a lot more confident we can get them before they get into the private land.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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