Proposed cuts singe Ga. forest commission

Proposed cuts singe Ga. forest commission

24 January 2009

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USA — The massive forest fire that cut a 780-square-mile swath through south Georgia two years ago was an enduring lesson to firefighters in Georgia who, most years, deal with blazes just a fraction of that size.

To prepare for the next big blaze, the Georgia Forestry Commission hired investigators to target arson fires plaguing the state, pushed for stiffer criminal penalties and urged communities to create community fire safety plans.

But the commission, along with most other state agencies, must now balance its expanded mission amid deepening budget cuts. Gov. Sonny Perdue’s spending plan proposes cutting the commission’s budget by $5.5 million to help meet the $2.2 billion spending deficit.

The 14 percent proposed cuts are not unusual, as state agencies across the board are facing sharp slashes to their funding. And the commission, like other state agencies, will likely have to make more tough decisions as it struggles to meet its duties as the funding withers away.

The commission plans to cut 18 unfilled positions, close four offices and hike fees on a host of its programs aimed at landowners. And it also might have to scale back its reforestation program if it can’t raise more revenue.

“It makes it more difficult to do our jobs,” said Robert Farris, the commission’s director. “But we’re focused on coming up with the things that have the least impact.”

The 2007 fires, it’s safe to say, shook Georgia firefighters and forest officials to their core.

The blazes charred 500,000 acres of swamp and timberland, forced hundreds to flee their homes and forced Georgia – which has long lent its firefighters to blazes across the country – to turn to neighbors for help.

All told, it took some 3,300 firefighters from across the country more than two months to help contain the blaze.

Farris and other forest officials say it was a wake-up call for firefighters. Most years, some 30,000 acres of Georgia forest are blackened by wildfire; the 2007 fire was more than 15 times that size, the biggest in Georgia’s recorded history.

In the aftermath of the fire, forest officials regrouped to tackle some of the stubborn problems in the state’s 24 million acres of forestland.

The commission estimates that 17 percent of the forest fires that besiege the state each year are intentionally set arsons, costing at least $5 million to fight. Another 13 percent are accidentally begun by landowners who didn’t have burn permits.

Forest officials soon began funding two full-time arson investigators to probe blazes, rather than relying on part-time investigators who often spend their time on the front lines fighting fires. The team yielded 38 arson arrests last year, and Farris said he hopes to hire more investigators.

The commission began another round of encouraging communities to adopt wildfire protection plans, and urged more landowners to take part in controlled burns to help clear thick underbrush. And the commission backed legislation, adopted last year, that would stiffen penalties on arsons and toughen restrictions on people who use illegal burn permits.

Much of the commission’s cost-cutting is focused on operating costs.

To scale back water costs, the agency’s fire trucks are now drawing directly from ponds and creeks instead of using potable water. And to rein in rising utility costs, the commission orders its offices to keep lights dim and the heat low during even the coldest days.

At a frigid outpost in McDonough, chief ranger Jenny Lynn Bruner ambled through the dimly lit office wearing four thick layers. She said she’s had to turn back at least a half-dozen applicants for jobs in recent weeks because of no openings, and has noticed the number of landowners calling for prescribed burns has dropped as the economy has teetered.

Each service, which involves a site visit and a written burn plan, can cost hundreds of dollars and even thousands of depending on the size of the tract.

Yet some landowners are still willing to fork over hard-earned money for the burns. At a 31-acre burn site in nearby Locust Grove, Bruner and another forest official helped surround the site in diesel-fueled flames.

Ducking from branches while roaming the site on an ATV – a windshield for the vehicle was also a victim of the cuts – she worried that more landowners may be rethinking the service.

“If people don’t do prescribed burnings, the fuel is going to burn up so much faster – and there will be a bigger chance that homes and property will burn up,” she said.

To Zip Hinton, who owns the land, the burn was a no-brainer. But he can’t help but wonder what type of toll the next round of cuts will have on the forestry office down the street.

“I know about the budget cuts,” Hinton said. “I have to bring a flashlight every time I come to their office.”

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