Federal audit seeks more accountability for wildfires

Federalaudit seeks more accountability for wildfires

8 January 2007

published by www.dailybulletin.com

USA — Local and state governments thatauthorize home construction in fire country should pay more for firefighting inthe danger zones they help create, according to a federal audit.

The report on escalating costs borne by the U.S. Forest Service was issued inlate November, a month after five Forest Service firefighters were fatallyinjured as they tried to protect a Twin Pines home from the Esperanza Fire.

“The Forest Service is looking at it from a financial standpoint, andit’s getting more expensive,” said Mike Jarvis, deputy director ofcommunications for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.”We’re taking a look at it, too.

“But we don’t have zoning or planning authority. We don’t make anyland-use decisions. We get notified, and we do give input at times. But we don’tget consulted, and we’re not involved in the approval process.

“A lot of these questions do belong with local governments and planningofficials.”

Three times since 2001, fighting large blazes in fire-prone areas thatinclude San Bernardino and Riverside counties has cost the Forest Service morethan $1billion a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture audit stated.

Rising costs are mainly

due toefforts to protect private property bordering Forest Service lands in theso-called wildland urban interface, or WUI, federal auditors said.

“Assigning more financial responsibility to state and local governmentfor WUI wildfire protection is critical because federal agencies do not have thepower to regulate WUI development,” the audit states. “Zoning andplanning authority rests entirely with state and local governments.”

Auditors visited national forests in Montana, Washington, Oregon andCalifornia. They also studied several historic fires, including the 2003 OldFire that destroyed about 1,000 homes in and near the San Bernardino NationalForest.

From Wrightwood to Idyllwild, the nation’s most urbanized mountain forest isstill home to roughly 100,000 people, more than $7billion in assessed propertyvalues, and millions of dead trees.

Local planners try to work closely with the Forest Service on projectsbordering forest lands, said Julie Rynerson, planning division chief for the SanBernardino County Land Use Services Department.

“When we have any developments that are adjacent to Forest Service land,we do contact them,” Rynerson said. “They may not have the power toregulate, but we do consult with them and seek their input. We conditionprojects based on their recommendations.”

The audit from the Agriculture Department inspector general recommendedseeking clarification from Congress on Forest Service and state responsibilitiesfor protecting expanding developments in wildland urban interface areas.

Many lawmakers in both houses of Congress are already familiar with the fivefirefighter deaths in the Esperanza Fire. It was the deadliest wildland fireentrapment since 1993, when 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain inColorado.

The Engine 57 crew deaths on Oct. 26 were also the first wildland firetragedy in more than a decade in which so many firefighters died trying toprotect a single home.

In December, lawmakers in the House and Senate united in less than 24 hoursto send legislation to President Bush seeking a tax-law change so more than$1million in donations could be released to the firefighters’ families tax-free.

Bush signed the Fallen Firefighter Assistance Tax Clarification Act of 2006on Dec. 21.

The crew of Engine 57 were Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; PabloCerda, 23, of Fountain Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, ofPhelan; and Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild.

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