US to bolster firefighter ranks as wildfires burn year-round
BOISE — U.S. wildfire managers have started shifting from seasonal to full-time firefighting crews to deal with what has become a year-round wildfire season as climate change has made the American West warmer and drier. The crews also could remove brush and other hazardous fuels when not battling blazes.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said on Sept. 2 that it's adding 76 firefighters and support personnel to its 3,400-person firefighting workforce.
Additionally, 428 firefighters will change from part-time seasonal work to either full-time seasonal or permanent work with health and retirement benefits. Ultimately, the agency wants about 80% of its firefighters on permanently. The rest would be seasonal, many of whom are college students who return to class in the fall.
It comes as climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say. A historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires harder to fight in the West.
The land agency received $13 million in its 2021 budget for workforce transformation that is being used to add the 76 firefighters. The U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, received $29 million overall to carry out a plan for transforming its firefighting workforce.
So far this year, more than 42,500 wildfires have scorched 7,850 square miles, the center said. To date, the area burned this year is slightly under the 10-year average.
The U.S. Forest Service also has firefighters, and city and state employees fight wildfires. Federal agencies have other workers whose primary job isn't fighting wildfires but who can choose to help out by qualifying for some aspect of firefighting.
Health officials enact ‘crisis’ standards amid COVID surge
BOISE — Idaho public health leaders activated "crisis standards of care" for the state's northern hospitals because there are more coronavirus patients than the institutions can handle.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare quietly enacted the move on Sept. 6 and publicly announced it in a statement the next morning — warning residents that they may not get the care they would normally expect if they need to be hospitalized.
It came as the state's confirmed coronavirus cases skyrocketed in recent weeks. Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S.
The agency cited "a severe shortage of staffing and available beds in the northern area of the state caused by a massive increase in patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalization."
The designation includes 10 hospitals and healthcare systems in the Idaho panhandle and in north-central Idaho. The agency said its goal is to extend care to as many patients as possible and to save as many lives as possible.
The move allows hospitals to allot scarce resources like intensive care unit rooms to patients most likely to survive.
Other patients will still receive care, but they may be placed in hospital classrooms or conference rooms rather than traditional hospital rooms or go without some life-saving medical equipment.
The designation will remain in effect until there are enough resources — including staffing, hospital beds and equipment or a drop in the number of patients — to provide normal levels of treatment to all.
More than 500 people were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Sept. 1 — the most recent data available on the Department of Health and Welfare's website — and more than a third of them were in intensive care unit beds.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little called the move to limit care "an unprecedented and unwanted point in the history of our state" and urged residents to get vaccinated against coronavirus.
State flush with cash as revenues climb, oil recovers
ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico is flush with cash due to a quick recovery of oil and gas markets and higher than expected gross receipts tax revenues as consumers spend federal stimulus checks and tap into other recovery aid, state finance officials and legislative analysts said.
The officials briefed a key panel of state lawmakers on Aug. 27. They said while revenues are expected to hit record levels for the next fiscal year, the pandemic remains a risk factor that still has the potential to derail economic recovery if cases continue to surge or shutdowns are imposed again.
While widespread shutdowns are not likely, the forecast shows what analysts described as a significant upward revision in recurring revenues for the current fiscal year — an increase of more than $632 million from estimates made just six months ago. Nearly $1.4 billion in new money is expected for the 2023 fiscal year, marking growth of nearly 19%.
Some lawmakers warned that the federal recovery aid won't be around forever and urged fellow members of the Legislative Finance Committee to continue building up the state's reserves.
As for the contributions of oil and gas, Dawn Iglesias, the committee's chief economist, noted that New Mexico is now the second largest producer in the U.S. and is the only top producing state so far to have recovered to above pre-pandemic production levels.
New Mexico in April reached a record level of oil production with more than 1.2 million barrels a day. Natural gas production hit a record of 6.5 billion cubic feet of gas a day in May.
Balloon fiesta taking steps to combat pandemic
ALBUQUERQUE — Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta officials say they're canceling some parts of the event and will require guests to wear masks to enter the grounds and while in indoor areas and crowded outdoor settings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said on Sept. 1 he didn't believe that face mask requirements and other safety practices would affect attendance numbers for the Oct. 2-10 event.
The music fiesta is being canceled this year due to close proximity of guests and the discovery center is being shelved because of its indoor nature featuring activities with multiple touchpoints, officials said.
Other steps being taken include providing cashless options to buy tickets, moving hospitality seating outdoors and increasing spacing between popular special-shape balloons inside the park, officials said.
The changes track federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and at public health order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, officials said.
23 homes finally getting wired for electricity
TONALEA, Ariz. — Tribal President Jonathan Nez has finalized a subgrant agreement between the Navajo Nation and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to extend power lines to homes in the community of Tonalea, providing long-awaited electricity to at least 23 families.
Several Tonalea residents scheduled to receive electricity attended the Sept. 4 signing of the agreement for the 23 homes located in the former Bennett Freeze area.
Selena Slim said she has lived in Tonalea her entire life without electricity and spends $75 on a regular basis to purchase gasoline for her generator to provide electric power for her home.
Slim recalled when schools switched to virtual learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to pay even more money for gasoline to provide internet service for her children to complete online instruction.
At the signing, Nez spoke about the importance of building and improving the tribe's infrastructure to provide long-term benefits for communities and families.
The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.