Slashing of $500 million reserve fund is largest trim in president’s budget plan
SACRAMENTO Trying to offset Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina costs, the Bush administration is proposing major funding cuts that would largely ground a federal aerial firefighting fleet that is already under a cloud of uncertainty due to an April plane crash.
The White House has pitched eliminating a $500 million reserve fund that is tapped to battle blazes across California and the rest of the nation during heavy fire years. The $700 million annual firefighting budget is often exceeded, with costs rising to more than $1 billion.
“This fund developed on a bipartisan basis ensured thatfirefighting costs could be met,” said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Bay Area Democrat.
Environmentalists have joined western Democrats in opposing the plan, which requires congressional approval.
During any year in which the fire season is worse than normal, the U.S. Forest Service also would have to cancel other efforts, such as removing dead and dying trees.
The proposal is the largest aspect of a proposed $2.3 billion package of cuts across U.S. government agencies.
If combined with a related development a proposed spending limit of $100 million next year on federal aerial firefighting it will cut the agency’s airborne efforts by 50 percent to 75 percent.
The information on the new limit was contained in an internal agency memo that has surfaced publicly.
The Forest Service, which has spent nearly $200 million on aviation in this relatively light fire year, would be required to complete a lengthy justification process if it wanted to surpass the $100 million limit in future years.
The requirement “will effectively shut down the Forest Service’s aviation program in fiscal year 2006, with the exception of some limited use of air tankers late in the fiscal year,” according to the memo.
The document concludes that the development will lead to:
– A “reduced initial-attack success rate.”
– An “increased loss of government and private property.”
– An “increased demand for ground-based resources to respond to larger and longer-duration fires.”
– A “reduced capability to support federal, state, county and local-government partners.”
Forest Service officials downplayed the significance of the memo, saying it did
not represent the entire funding picture.
Representatives of the administration’s Office of Management and Budget defended the moves, saying that the reduced allocations will be adequate.
“Restraining spending forces us to ask tough questions and make tough choices, but we can’t shy away from unpopular decisions if we hope to ever make the progress we need to make in reducing the deficit,” said Scott Milburn, an OMB spokesman.
The developments come as Forest Service officials await the completion of an investigation into an April crash of a former Navy P-3 patrol aircraft in Northern California.
The deadly crash following mid-air breakups of other large, aging air tankers under contract to the Forest Service raised questions about the structural integrity of the P-3. The aircraft is now a primary element of the agency’s fleet.
The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to determine the cause of the crash. But if the P-3 also broke up, it could force limited use or grounding of that type of aircraft in the dwindling fleet.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which maintains the second largest fleet of air tankers in the nation, is concerned about the state of the federal fleet.
“Anytime there’s a resource reduction that affects us, it has potential on large fires to impact us,” said Mike Padilla, the state agency’s aviation chief. “It’s always public safety when you’re talking about wildland fires and urban interface, and that potential continues to grow in California.”
Staff writer Guy McCarthy and wire services contributed to this report.