BECKLEY, W.Va. — With a potentially disastrous forest fire season looming, firefighters in southern West Virginia are worried about the effects recent staffing cuts could have.

Nearly 40 foresters lost their jobs earlier this summer as a result of a $1.7 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2017, The Register-Herald reported (http://bit.ly/2ciMzX2).

Chris White is the head of fire prevention and suppression for Region 2, which oversees the southern region of the state. He said if early indicators of dryness are true, the fire season, which starts Oct. 1, could be disastrous.

White is preparing for such scenarios with a team that has been short-staffed since the Division of Forestry reduced its staffing levels, he said.

“This is pretty devastating for a small agency,” White said. “We relied on each other.”

When the forest is dry, White said, it’s not unusual to fight up to 20 fires daily. Even though most fires are small, each requires the work of at least two foresters. During the forest fire season last year, firefighters battled 648 blazes that burned more than 16,700 acres of forest lands, the most acreage burned since 2010.

“Once we dry out, it’s easy to have three fires in McDowell County, two in Wyoming, one in northwest Raleigh and two in Fayette,” White said.

Chelsea Ruby, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Commerce Department, which oversees the Division of Forestry, said forestry service members are doing everything they can to maintain adequate forest fire protection across the state.

If necessary, the state could ask for the help of the Department of Corrections or the West Virginia National Guard, she said, conceding that neither of those options is ideal.

“Unfortunately, the reality we currently face is that the number of fires may exceed the number of personnel,” Ruby said.


Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com