WASHINGTON (AP) — The Forest Service is spending more on fire prevention, an approach that should help reduce the number and severity of future forest fires, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
Vilsack said the agency is making up for past practices in which money that was meant for forest maintenance was instead used for more immediate needs, like fighting active fires.
"We're trying to make up for lost efforts," he said.
Vilsack's comments come as firefighters continue to battle destructive blazes across the West, fueled by an epic drought and a massive beetle infestation that has ravaged millions of trees.
Conditions are worse than usual where overgrown forests are even more vulnerable to the kind of super-fires that have consumed millions of acres and hundreds of homes.
Fire restoration and mitigation efforts last year, such as thinning and removal of brush and smaller trees that can fuel fires, helped reduce fire threats on about 123,000 acres of land nationwide, Vilsack said.
"We're in the process of making sure we do everything we possibly can to mitigate the risk," he added.
Congress passed legislation in 2009 that made sure firefighting efforts would not be funded at the expense of fire prevention programs.
The Forest Service already has announced a schedule to boost restoration and thinning programs by 20 percent each year in areas that face the greatest danger of a catastrophic fire. This year, the agency will target 4 million acres at a cost of about $1 billion.
The largest project is a 20-year plan to restore 2.4 million acres across four forests in northern Arizona.
Last year, the Forest Service spent a record $48 million on burned-area recovery work. Nearly $25 million already has been spent on similar efforts this year. The funding comes from the agency's annual fire suppression budget.