USA –President Bush’s proposal to reduce fire-prevention spending in the nation’s forests has some on edge in Inland Southern California, where three of the last five Octobers have brought catastrophic wildfires.
The proposed U.S. Forest Service cuts, assailed by local experts and Democratic lawmakers, came under fire during a hearing on the Bush budget proposal held Tuesday by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior Environment and Related Agencies.
At the same Capitol Hill hearing, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, the Bush administration’s official overseeing the Forest Service, said the upcoming fire season is likely to be as bad or worse than the past fire season, particularly in Southern California.
Critics say Bush’s budget request for the coming fiscal year, unveiled last week, emphasizes firefighting over prevention needed to make forests healthier and nearby communities safer.
“The administration still has it backward,” said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a firefighter employee group. “Preparedness should be the focus, not suppression.”
Bush’s budget calls for a $150 million increase in federal funding for the U.S. Forest Service to extinguish blazes, bringing the agency’s total firefighting budget to more than $1.14 billion, according to figures provided to the subcommittee.
2006 / The Press-Enterprise Concern that the U.S. Forest Service is losing many experienced firefighters to better paying Cal Fire has been expressed by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, and confirmed by an agriculture official.
But the proposal slashes the agency’s preparedness funding by $77 million, including a $13 million reduction in money to remove dead trees and overgrown brush that act as kindling for fires in 155 national forests.
That amounts to more than an 11 percent decrease from last year’s preparedness budget of around $5.9 million.
Fire-prevention projects, including prescribed burns and brush clearing, are important in the San Bernardino National Forest. The forest, which stretches across more than 670,000 acres from Wrightwood to Idyllwild, is home to some of the most fire-threatened communities in the West.
The forest, like many in the nation, was left overgrown by a century of aggressive fire suppression efforts. Recent years of drought left trees parched and susceptible to attack from bark beetles. Combined, the insects and drought killed millions of trees.
Years of tree clearing, largely made possible by congressional earmarks and other federal funds, have made a dent in the problem, but the fire threat remains.
“Idyllwild, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear are all in phenomenal trouble,” said UC Riverside earth science professor Richard Minnich, an expert in fire ecology.
He said the Bush administration has failed to make the problem a priority.
Fire Seasons More Severe
Tuesday’s hearing began with reports from scientists who suggested that fire seasons are becoming more severe — with more frequent and larger blazes — and that more Americans are moving into fire-prone places, especially in the West.
Following their testimony, subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., grilled Rey about Bush’s proposed cuts, saying they are just the latest in a long line of funding decreases Bush has sought in the face of ballooning firefighting costs.
Figures released Tuesday by the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General place the past fire season’s firefighting costs at $1.34 billion. Adjusted for inflation, the average annual firefighting cost between 1998 and 2006 was $994 million nationwide.
Dicks said cutting funds that would be used to remove dead trees and cut brush is counterproductive.
“Common sense would be that if you put more money into fuel reduction, it’s going to have an effect on having less severe fires,” he said.
Rey downplayed the cuts, saying that some of the money to pay for tree removal and brush clearing also comes out of other Forest Service accounts, and that money could potentially be shifted between the agency’s firefighting and fire suppression accounts, if necessary.
“The decrease is not as significant as it looks,” Rey said.
Former San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Gene Zimmerman said it’s foolish to cut prevention projects.
He said the value of firebreaks and forest-thinning projects was evident during the fires of 2003, which burned across 40 miles in San Bernardino County, destroying more than 1,000 homes.
“It clearly would have been worse” were it not for the projects,” he said. “My belief is that it would have been significantly worse.”
The projects were also heralded in the aftermath of last fall’s firestorms.
California’s two Democratic senators both lambasted the proposed cuts when Bush released his budget last week.
“There is no question that these terrible fires are happening more often,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. “We have to be able to clear our dead, down and dying trees.”
Firefighting Concerns Raised
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, worked with Feinstein and Dicks to secure $500 million in a November appropriations bill to thin forests across the nation — including $35 million for the San Bernardino National Forest.
Lewis was less critical of Bush’s proposal.
However, he raised concerns about the loss of experienced firefighters. He pointed to Forest Service reports about federal firefighters in California leaving the agency in droves to work for Cal Fire, the state fire agency, and other local departments. Locally, as many as 60 have left the Forest Service for better pay.
Rey acknowledged that Cal Fire has better pay and a “generous” retirement plan.
“It’s a reality we’re looking at,” Rey said. “We have experienced some movement. The question we are evaluating is how big a problem is that?”
Rey said he shared Lewis’ concern that the federal government is merely training firefighters for state and local agencies. But he said the firefighters would all end up fighting the same fires because of the mutual aid agreements in place.
Zimmerman, however, said firefighting could be hampered if firefighters have to be brought in from other jurisdictions, rather than from closer Forest Service stations.
Initial attack on wildfires, he said, “is off the scale in terms of importance.”
Lewis and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, also raised questions about whether the Defense Department’s fleet of C-130 tankers would be available to help battle blazes in the upcoming fire season.
Rey said he is confident that some, and likely all of the planes will be available.