Environment
In this photo released by The Eastern Area Incident Management Team, a Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) drops retardant on a wheat field as crews continue to battle a wildfire in eastern Washington state Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018.
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In this photo released by The Eastern Area Incident Management Team, a Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) drops retardant on a wheat field as crews continue to battle a wildfire in eastern Washington state Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018.
Credit: Eastern Area IMT via AP

We're watching Washington state closely this fire season, says Forest Service chief

Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen tried to assure senators Tuesday that the agency is working to reduce wildfire risk.

Christiansen said money allocated for risk reduction will be spent for that – and not on fire-fighting costs. That’s despite a directive from the White House to cut its overall budget request by 5 percent.

"We made some tough choices, and (improving) forest conditions and hazardous fuels was the highest priority," Christiansen said in response to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Christiansen said she had requested more money this year for that program despite the overall budget reduction.

She also said she was monitoring fire danger in Washington state this summer. She said state officials have already reported dozens of fires, the majority of them in Western Washington.

"The concern is on the western part of the state,” she said. “This is very unusual this early."

Cantwell concurred.

"You get my attention anytime the map basically targets Western Washington and Southeast Alaska,” Cantwell said. “In early June we could be above normal for fire season."

Christiansen also faced questioning about how the Forest Service was addressing complaints of sexual harassment. The agency's previous chief resigned after allegations against him. Women who work at the service have complained about a culture of harassment.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said a woman who spent 22 years in the Forest Service resigned recently, writing in a letter that its leaders failed to adhere to high ethical standards.

Christiansen said the agency was strengthening investigation of harassment and taking action against harassers. She said Forest Service was banning alcohol in any seasonal housing beginning this year. And she said the agency was encouraging an ethic to stop the silence about harassment.

“Sustained cultural change will take longer than any of us wants,” Christiansen said. “But I’m determined to lead a permanent shift in the Forest Service.”