USA — President Bush has signed into law a stopgap spending bill that includes $500 million in emergency spending to cover unexpected U.S. Forest Service firefighting costs, $250 million in forest fuels management and fire prevention funding and $25 million to help retain Forest Service firefighters in areas like Southern California, Congressman Jerry Lewis said.
The Forest Service literally ran out of money fighting the seemingly never-ending wildfires in Northern California, and we were facing devastating cuts to maintenance, services and even fire prevention in some areas, said Lewis, the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. Congress and the President have responded with this emergency funding increase to ensure that we do not create an even worse fire threat in the future.
The Forest Service funding was approved by the House and Senate as part of a stopgap spending measure to keep the federal government running through March 6, 2009. That bill became necessary because Congress has been unable to pass any of the annual spending bills for Fiscal Year 2009. The bill, which also includes $22.6 billion in disaster relief for areas ravaged by hurricanes and fires, was signed by President Bush late Tuesday night.
Lewis advocated for the increased funding with Congressman Norm Dicks of Washington, the chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. Dicks and Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, the lead Republican on the subcommittee, agreed to the emergency funding after the Forest Service announced it was taking hundreds of millions of dollars from land acquisition, maintenance and even some fire prevention programs to cover the huge cost of firefighting this year
In order to give the Forest Service a chance to prevent future fires, Lewis urged the subcommittee to approve more spending for hazardous fuels reduction in addition to ensuring that funds already allocated would not be transferred to cover firefighting costs. The bill includes $125 million for Forest Service grants to state and private forestry prevention programs, $50 million for fuel reduction on the forest lands and $75 million for rehabilitation of forests that have been burned. An additional $135 million was provided for Bureau of Land Management emergency fire needs and $100 million was allocated to the Natural Resource Conservation Services emergency watershed program.
The bill also provides $25 million to help the Forest Service address an on-going manpower shortage in the lower ranks of its fire-fighting personnel. The problem has been especially acute in the San Bernardino National Forest and other Southern California forests, where more than four out of 10 basic firefighters have left to work in better-paying state and local firefighting jobs. The bill specifically designates the funds for retention initiatives in areas at high risk of catastrophic wildfire that face recurrent staffing shortages.
We have seen clear evidence that the Forest Service is losing experienced firefighters in the San Bernardino National Forest because it cannot compete with other fire agencies in terms of pay and benefits, Lewis said. These additional funds will hopefully provide the resources needed to retain these important staff members.