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As an ‘acute’ wildfire season looms, White House sends $ 110 million to drought-stricken West

Former boat launches no longer connect with the Salton Sea in Imperial County, Calif., on April 19, 2015. The ongoing drought, along with improved agricultural methods, has diminished the size of the sea, creating a new set of environmental concerns — the dust contains decades of pesticides and other chemicals that could be spread for miles. The county already has the highest rate of asthma in the state. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

This story has been updated.

As a third of the West copes with severe drought, the Obama administration announced Friday it would provide more than $100 million to help affected communities and combat wildfires in the region.

The move comes as federal officials acknowledged the drier conditions could translate into an addition $200 million in fire suppression costs than they initially allocated for the year.

“We are focused on and concerned about the impact of the drought for economic and social conditions across the Western United States,” White House senior adviser Brian Deese told reporters in a conference call Friday. “The very dry conditions also mean the outlook for the wildfire season will be acute.”

Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the Agriculture Department, told reporters that fire suppression now accounts for more than 40 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, compared with 16 percent in 1995.

“We have substantial challenges related to our fire budget,” Bonnie said, noting the government may have to spend $200 million more than it originally budgeted for the year. He added Western fire seasons are now “about 60 to 80 days longer than they were three decades ago.”

The new funding comes on top of the more than $190 million federal agencies have already spent to help communities in the West, and is separate from the at least $1.2 billion the Agriculture Department estimates it will provide to livestock producers experiencing grazing losses as a result of the drought.

Deese said President Obama discussed the new measures Friday — as well as future climate impacts on the region — in a video conference call with the governors of Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, and Utah’s lieutenant governor.

Several top administration officials joined the call, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Kathy Sullivan, Federal Emergency Management Administration Administrator Craig Fugate, Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Portia Wu.

Thirty five percent of the West is now facing severe to exceptional drought, according to federal officials.

[READ: California’s largest lake slips away amidst drought]

The new programs the administration unveiled Friday include a Labor Department grant of as much as $18 million to provide jobs for California workers dislocated by drought, and expanded assistance to livestock producers.

Starting in July, the National Dislocated Worker grant will employ up to 1,000 workers for as long as six months with public and nonprofit agencies focused on bolstering drought resilience, reducing wildfire risk and improving water efficiency.

The Agriculture Department is expanding a program that ensures one or two bad years caused by drought does not cut farmers’ crop insurance coverage, officials said. This move will provide roughly $30 million in additional relief to farmers in fiscal year 2016, and $42 million the following year.

Other measures include an effort between USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and faith-based and community groups to help establish at least 760 summer food service meal sites this year in the drought-impacted communities in California’s Central Valley and $6.5 million from the Bureau of Reclamation to support water management improvement projects over the next two years.

“We’re marshaling every resource that we have to provide meaningful relief,” Connor said.

Also in Energy & Environment:

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