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Federal Agencies Partner to Combat Western Wildfires

Federal Agencies Partner to Combat Western Wildfires

U.S. Department of Agriculture News Release

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2012 – The U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal organizations continue to ramp up efforts to protect life, public safety and aid in community recovery in response to devastating wildfires in Colorado and other western states.

President Barack Obama yesterday approved a disaster declaration for Colorado providing additional support to state and local officials responding to the fires, as well as federal assistance for individuals affected by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires. Obama also traveled to Colorado yesterday to view the damage, meet with state and local officials, and thank the responders battling the fires in Colorado and other western states.

The Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, yesterday mobilized the remaining four Department of Defense C-130 aircraft equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems. The air tankers will be available beginning today to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in Colorado and elsewhere. They will be based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., along with the four other MAFFS-equipped aircraft that have already been mobilized.

To date, the MAFFS aircraft have conducted 70 sorties, 61 air drops and dropped 160,011 gallons of flame retardant in the Rocky Mountain region with a primary focus on the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo.

This total of eight MAFFs is in addition to the nineteen air tankers currently available nationally to combat fires. More than 11,000 personnel, more than 700 fire engines and more than 110 helicopters are also fighting wildfires around the U.S., supporting state and local efforts.

As part of heightened efforts, the Forest Service yesterday began training an Army battalion at Fort Carson, located near Colorado Springs, Colo., to potentially serve as ground firefighters to boost the number of firefighters available for wildfire suppression throughout the nation. The training involves one day of classroom training and one to two days of field training. During the classroom training, soldiers learn about wildfire suppression, including fire behavior and fire line safety. During field training, soldiers will receive instruction in fire suppression methods and procedures. This effort will ensure there are additional resources available should the Forest Service require them.

Fort Carson units and services have committed more than 120 soldiers, 10 bulldozers and other equipment and resources to provide assistance to ongoing fire containment operations and interagency support to the Greater Colorado Springs community.

Firefighters, in the face of adverse weather and difficult terrain, continue to combat the Waldo Canyon fire and more than 1,200 federal, state and local firefighters, over 90 fire engines and ten helicopters are fighting the fire today in the hillsides west of Colorado Springs.

To ensure that all military resources brought to bear to support Forest Service efforts are effectively coordinated and leveraged across DOD, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper yesterday announced he had selected a dual-status commander, in agreement with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, to support wildfire response and relief efforts in Colorado. Air Force Col. Peter J. Byrne -- a Colorado resident, Air National Guardsman, and director of the Joint Staff, Joint Force Headquarters-Colorado -- was appointed as the dual-status commander and will work with fire incident commanders.

Joint federal, state and local damage surveys are continuing in other areas, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated as part of the disaster declaration after the assessments are fully completed.

The major disaster declaration for Colorado, approved by Obama early yesterday, makes federal funding available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, for Colorado’s El Paso and Larimer Counties impacted by the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires. Federal funding is also available for crisis counseling and disaster unemployment assistance for affected individuals in El Paso and Larimer Counties impacted by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.

FEMA recently approved two additional Fire Management Assistance Grants for the Rosecrest fire in Salt Lake County, Utah; and for the Arapaho fire in Albany County, Wyoming. This brings the overall total number of such grants approved for western states during this fire season to 21. Other states that have received these grants include Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada.

FMAGs are provided through the Disaster Relief Fund and made available by FEMA to assist in fighting fires that threaten to cause a major disaster. Eligible items can include expenses for field camps, equipment use, repair, and replacement, mobilization and demobilization activities, and tools, materials and supplies.

Overall, federal partners have deployed 22 Incident Management Teams to help provide a coordinated and aggressive response to wildfires across the country, including at the Flagstaff fire near Boulder, Colo., the Dahl and Ash Creek fires in Montana, the Seeley and Fontenelle fires in Utah, the Neighbor Mountain fire in Virginia, and others.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, in partnerships with states and local agencies, have developed a cohesive strategy to respond to the increase in wildfires in recent years by focusing on:

-- Forest restoration activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns to make forests healthier and less susceptible to catastrophic fires;

-- Working with communities to reduce fire hazards around houses to make them more resistant to wildfire threats; and

-- Consideration of the full spectrum of fire response and management activities, recognizing the differences in missions among local, state, tribal and federal agencies.

On average, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior bureaus respond to about 16,500 wildfires each year that occur on land under their jurisdiction and assist state and local agencies in responding to a significant number of the approximately 60,000 wildfires each year that occur on land under their jurisdiction, officials said.

Federal firefighters, aircraft, and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the nation, officials said. Firefighting experts continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial response capabilities.

In addition, officials said, federal agencies are conducting accelerated restoration activities nationwide aimed at healthier forests and reduced fire risks in the years to come.

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