Washington, USA — President Bush’s 2009 budget plan would slash money for fire prevention and preparedness in the wake of last fall’s devastating wildfires in California, prompting an outcry from Democratic lawmakers who warned of massive layoffs at the Forest Service.
Bush did propose a slight increase in money to respond to fires.
The proposals were in Bush’s final, $3.1 trillion budget blueprint, which he presented to Congress on Monday. Majority Democrats quickly indicated that they wouldn’t go along with many of his plans.
“Our nation’s forest are tinder dry, and drought and global warming will only compound the problem and lead to more catastrophic wildfires,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “More needs to be done, not less.”
Among the proposed cuts was a $13 million decrease in money for the Forest Service to clear debris and small trees that can pose a risk of fire.
Money for preparedness and readiness, such as firefighter training and equipment, would fall from $942 million to $866 million, according to Democratic aides.
Overall the budget for the U.S. Forest Service would decline from $4.5 billion in 2008 to $4.1 billion in 2009 under Bush’s proposal.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee, called the proposed cuts to the Forest Service “breathtaking” and said they could result in a layoff of nearly 1,200 employees10 percent of the agency’s work force. “It’s bad,” Dicks said.
Asked about the complaints, Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said only, “The budget is a starting point for dialogue during budget hearings.”
A $5.9 million Interior Department rural fire assistance grant program would be eliminated in Bush’s budget plan, while a Homeland Security Department program that provides federal grants directly to local fire departments and medical services organizations would be cut by more than 50 percent.
Money for responding to fires would increase by $190 million, but lawmakers want more money in prevention because once fires start they will be responded to regardless of how much money is budgeted. In recent years response costs have exceeded what’s been budgeted.
Last October, nearly 2,200 homes were destroyed in simultaneous wind-driven blazes from north of Los Angeles south to the Mexican border, causing more than $2.2 billion in private insurance claims. Federal, state and local agencies spent about $100 million fighting flames that charred about 800 square miles and killed 10 people.
“When our firefighters are out there on the front lines working to protect our communities, you don’t slash funding for their equipment and training,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Feinstein and Dicks said they’d work to restore the money. Bush has proposed similar cuts in past years but Congress has restored much of the money.