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.
Cuts to fire assistance grants would also limit funds available for rural fire departments trickling down to departments in Eastern Oregon.
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.
Joani Bosworth, spokeswoman for the Umatilla National Forest said she couldn’t comment on pending legislation or budgets. She did say, “We will continue to be as effective and efficient as possible with the funds we’re appropriated.”
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 employees – 10 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.
Angie Johnson, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Forestry said the state agency wouldn’t be affected by cuts to the Forest Service, she believed Northeast Oregon rural departments will suffer from a cut on available grants.
“It’ll be disappointing, that’s for sure,” Johnson said, “because this is a way for state agencies that work with us, with ODF on wildland instances. This is a way for them to get the equipment to participate. That indeed is going to be disappointing.”
Rural fire assistance grants usually went to pay for equipment such as fire shelters, radios, tools, hoses and personal protective equipment (shirts, pants and gloves).
Stanfield Rural Fire Department Chief Jim Whelan agreed, not having grants available may put a strain on rural departments.
“It means we’ll be using our existing things longer and if that money’s not available then we have to figure out how to get it out of annual budget funds,” Whelan said. “And when you’re looking at trying to keep your equipment replaced and upgrading all your equipment, trading things year by year, whatever you think is most important at that time, you spend it on. If you have the grant we can buy things that we need that we wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.”
In the past, of the six times Stanfield has applied for an RFP grant, it’s received one. He said on average, a rural fire department’s chance of getting such a grant has been about one in four. Stanfield used the funds to purchase personal protective equipment, turnouts and self contained breathing apparatuses.
Also in Bush’s proposed budget, 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.
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.