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Sequester could impact Arizona wildfire season

PHOENIX — There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the impact of the federal budget cuts and how it will affect the upcoming Arizona wildfire season.

Wildfire expert Eric Neitzel said nothing is definitive yet, but the spending cuts could reduce the number of firefighters who will be hired on and it could have an impact on how fires are fought from above.

“They could be sparing the air, if you will, and not granting the aviation assets [firefighting airtankers] as liberally as they once did to fight these fires.”

Several Valley fire departments have been used on major wildfires in the state ad have also been sent to other states to help with massive fires. Neitzel said they could be called upon less because budget cuts could force the Forest Service and others to dig into the bullpen and tap the services of employees that usually don’t fight wildfires.

These cuts will also affect smaller outfits that provide much needed services during wildfires.

“Contractors, such as caterers, who keep the firefighters fed and porta potty distributors, people who depend on federal contracts to keep them in business.”

The Arizona Wildfire Academy begins next week in Prescott and the sequester is having an impact. Tony Sciacca with the academy said some instructors have pulled out and the student numbers are down because of budget cut fears.

“Last year we started the academy with 620 students and we’re going to kick off this year’s academy with 70 to 80 students less.”

Sciacca said several instructors who work for the federal government cancelled teaching next week because of the sequester.

Flagstaff’s Summit Fire District Chief Don Howard said the experts are predicting the state’s upcoming wildfire season will be similar to the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The 2011 season was the worst in state history with more than one million acres burned.

The Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona was the largest wildfire on record in the state at almost 550,000 acres.

Last year about 200,000 acres burned in Arizona.