USDA Expects Severe Fire Season - ABC FOX MONTANA NEWS, WEATHER, SPORTS - KTMF/KWYB

USDA Expects Severe Fire Season

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Federal officials are predicting an above-normal level of wildfire potential in Montana and other areas of the northwest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a press conference Monday about this year's fire season outlook.

USDA officials said drought conditions, pine beetle tree kills and fewer dollars due to the sequester could make this year's fire season one of the worst to date.

Montana fire crews are currently undergoing spring training, helping them become well-equipped to handle wildfires all over the country.

Dan Cottrell, an Operations Foreman for the Missoula Smokejumper Base, said about 140 jumpers will be ready to battle wildfires.

Cottrell said smokejumpers -- experienced firefighters who parachute out of planes into remote wildfire locations -- are going through physical and mental training drills before the season starts.

"The hot shot crews, the district engine folks, the heli-tack, they're pretty much similar to us, I mean they're all going through their yearly spring refreshers as well," Cottrell said.

Cottrell said smokejumpers each do five practice jumps during spring training as well.

"Just to kind of hone their skills, under a canopy and get used to jumping into small places out in the woods for the fire season," Cottrell said.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said this season will likely be severe because 40 percent of the country is in a moderate-to-severe drought.

Vilsack said, "When you combine that with the substantial amount of beetle kill, that has occurred in many western states, that is a prescription for very serious conditions."

Vilsack said due to the sequestration, the U.S. Forest Service will employ 500 fewer firefighters and potentially have 50 fewer engines across the country.

"Nevertheless, we're going to work hard to make sure the job gets done, protecting people and property and making sure our firefighters are safe," Vilsack said.

Cottrell said the smokejumpers undergoing training will be stationed in Grangeville, Idaho, West Yellowstone and Missoula.

He said they've already sent 15 jumpers down to New Mexico and Arizona to battle fires.

"You know Montana, we'll still be a little ways away, but we've had a lot of warm, dry weather over the last couple of weeks, so you know, things will pick up pretty quick," Cottrell said.

USDA officials said 9.3 million across of land and more than 4,400 structures burned in wildfires in 2012 -- the highest number of acres burned since 1960.

To learn how to do your part to help prevent wildfires, click here.

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