Feds spring to action in response to Arizona wildfire

Three federal agencies this week deployed money, personnel and equipment to Arizona to help state and local authorities deal with the fast-spreading wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 elite firefighters Sunday.

The departments of Agriculture and the Interior, both operating with diminished firefighting budgets — the result of mandatory federal spending cuts — have sent firefighting personnel to the region, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised funding to support the response efforts.

The U.S. Forest Service, part of Agriculture, said that it has 500 fewer firefighters because of sequestration, and Interior reports being down about 250 positions in its fire program. Officials said, however, that sequestration has not affected the federal government’s ability to respond to wildfires so far this year.

The deadly fire near the small town of Yarnell grew quickly from 200 acres Saturday to an estimated 8,400 acres by Tuesday, according to federal officials. It had destroyed about 200 homes by Sunday, officials said.

About 450 federal, state and local firefighters are working to control the blaze, according to officials. Interior sent 60 firefighters to the area, and Agriculture sent nearly 100.

The National Incident Management System, set up through FEMA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, dictates how agencies work together during crises, providing guidelines for a unified command structure. In this case, the Arizona State Forestry Division has taken the lead.

“It’s a very structured hierarchy, and everyone involved understands that,” said Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which has sent personnel to the region. “It’s a remarkable thing to see people coming from different places, melding together and working well in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations possible.”

The Forest Service on Tuesday repositioned four firefighting aircraft from Colorado to Arizona. The agency rigs military C-130 cargo planes with special equipment to drop water and fire retardant.

The Forest Service also plans to assist in investigating the cause of the wildfire, according to spokesman Lawrence Chambers.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell went to Arizona on Tuesday to assess the situation in Yarnell, officials said. She met with firefighters and volunteers, employees of the Bureau of Land Management and representatives from other federal agencies involved in the firefighting effort.

“We stand ready to provide whatever further assistance the state of Arizona and local communities need to extinguish the blaze and protect lives and property," Jewell said in a statement Monday.

The secretary also said she had visited a Hotshot fire crew in Utah over the weekend and “witnessed firsthand their commitment to our nation and emphasis on firefighter safety.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday approved Arizona’s request for fire management grants, which cover three-quarters of expenses for such things as field camps, equipment and logistics. FEMA reimburses state and local agencies for those expenditures, meaning the cost to the federal government will not be known until the response efforts have ended.

The government-wide spending cuts known as the sequester, which took effect in March, forced most federal agencies to trim their expenses by 5 percent. Overall, more than 5,600 federal firefighters — 43 percent of the force from all national agencies — are in action battling wildfires across the West, according to federal officials.

The firefighters who died Sunday worked for a specialized unit of the Prescott, Ariz., fire department known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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