Audit: Firefighting too costly

Audit:Firefighting too costly

30 November 2006

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USA — Federal firefighters were lauded for heroicefforts to save homes during the devastating firestorms of 2003, and last montha U.S. Forest Service crew paid the ultimate price when the Esperanza Fireovertook them as they tried to protect a home.

Now, an audit of the Forest Service has concluded that the agency shoulderstoo much of the financial burden when fighting big wildfires.

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general found that protectinghomes in areas of extreme fire danger has greatly increased the agency’sfirefighting costs. The Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion fightingfires in three of the last six years.

Placing greater financial responsibility for fighting wildfires on state andlocal agencies might encourage them to restrict building in fire-threatenedareas, thus reducing the threat to human life and firefighting costs, the auditreleased Wednesday found.

Most Riverside and San Bernardino county leaders have been unwilling toprohibit home building in even the region’s most fire-prone areas, citingindividual property rights. However, since the Esperanza Fire, at least oneInland official said he now is questioning those long-held policies.

The 2003 Old Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in San Bernardino County.Yet, in the 18 months after it was extinguished, Inland cities and countiesissued permits for more than 2,500 homes in areas the state designated as facing”very high” or “extreme” fire danger, a 2005 investigationby The Press-Enterprise found.

“The buildings sprout back faster than the brush does,” saidrecently retired San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman.”We do need to do something relative to this continued building in theseincredibly fire-prone areas.”

Policy Questioned

There is no Inland area where residential building is outlawed on privateproperty because of fire threat. None of more than a dozen local and stateofficials interviewed during the 2005 investigation said they would support suchrestrictions.

But in the wake of the deadly Esperanza Fire, Riverside County Supervisor BobBuster said he wants to examine possible restrictions on development in suchareas. The Twin Pines home that the five Forest Service firefighters died tryingto save last month probably shouldn’t have been built there, he said.

At his urging, supervisors last week agreed to form a committee of fire, lawenforcement and planning officials to explore ways to prevent a repeat of theEsperanza tragedy.

Buster said Wednesday he wants the committee to consider the feasibility ofbuying vacant but currently buildable lots in order to prevent futuredevelopment.

Other Inland officials disagreed.

Verne Lauritzen, Supervisor Jeff Stone’s chief of staff, said Wednesday thecounty shouldn’t be in the business of telling people not to live where theywant to live.

He said the Riverside County Fire Department has been aggressive in fireprevention efforts but that a lot of state and federal environmental regulationsprevent the county from doing more. He cited the U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency’s restriction of brush clearance beyond 100 feet of a home to protectrare plants.

Perhaps that restriction ought to be eased to let local authorities decidewhat is best for a particular area, he said.

In San Bernardino County, Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said stricter buildingregulations — both before and after the 2003 fires — have helped save homesand neighborhoods. He pointed out that many homes destroyed by fire in recentyears were older and predated current regulations.

While the firefighter deaths in the Esperanza Fire “are completelyunacceptable,” stopping building altogether in high-risk areas isn’t on thetable in San Bernardino County, he said.

“We haven’t even discussed it,” Hansberger said. “Our fireguys have never suggested it.”

Recommendations Issued

The San Bernardino National Forest was among 10 Western forests included inthe audit. The report examined nine current and past fires, including the OldFire.

The 48-page report recommends that Forest Service officials renegotiateagreements for how firefighting costs are divided among agencies workingtogether to battle big blazes — and suggests such negotiations have beenneglected.

San Bernardino National Forest fire Chief Mike Dietrich, however, said theregion is ahead of others in developing effective cost-share agreements amonglocal, state and federal agencies.

Calling California a model, Dietrich said financial responsibility forfighting blazes is decided on a “percentage of effort” basis, meaningcosts are linked to the amount of manpower and resources each agency dedicatesto a fire.

The recommendations also include allowing some fires to burn in order tonaturally thin the nation’s forests, and holding fire commanders moreaccountable for controlling the costs of fighting fires.

The Forest Service fully concurred with the inspector general’s findings in aformal response contained in the report.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, is pressingthe county to change its land-use policies in hazardous areas. On Wednesday, hesaid he welcomed the recommendations.

Local governments seem to be immune from firefighting costs even though theyapprove where the houses are built, he said.

“We should do everything we can to make local governments moreresponsible,” Silver said. “It’s their decision to create this riskand to create these costs. Therefore, they should bear consequences of those baddecisions, which they don’t today.”

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