Senators Decry Wildfire Readiness

Filed at 5:06 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) — Vast stretches of federal lands are at risk of wildfiresbecause the Bush administration has failed to prevent fires before they start,senators contended Tuesday.
“We’re getting nowhere fast,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., criticizing theForest Service and the Interior Department’s fire-prevention efforts. “Somebodyin the administration has to fight for what you say you believe in.”
Wildfires have burned 159,000 acres in the Southwest this year, and nearly500,000 acres nationwide, including about 50,000 acres in Kyl’s home state.Drought conditions across much of the country have fire officials bracing forthe worst.
“The 2002 fire outlook is as grim as we’ve had,” said Joel Holtrop, a deputychief with the Forest Service.
The greatest risk is in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Southern Californiaand the eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine, Holtrop said Tuesday intestimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Senators from both parties accused the Forest Service and Interior Department ofspending too little money to remove trees that could feed fires and torehabilitate burned acreage.
Those two elements were key parts of the National Fire Plan created after adevastating fire season in 2000, one of the worst in 50 years, which burned morethan 8.4 million acres and cost more than $2 billion to fight.
Now Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the administration is ignoring the lessonslearned in 2000 and is foiling the aggressive fire prevention and forestmanagement programs Congress tried to put in place by appropriating billions ofdollars over the last few years.
“It’s pretty obvious to me that even if we put a lot of money in, as we didlast year, … it’s hard to see results,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. “Ican’t really find out where the money is going.”
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he was troubled by administration proposals toreduce fire preparedness money by $37 million next year and cut back oreliminate other anti-wildfire programs.
Holtrop countered that the administration is using the money it has the best wayit can to position itself to fight this summer’s fires.
An additional 5,474 federal fire fighters have been hired, bringing the totalfire work force to 17,633, he said. An additional 400 fire engines, 56bulldozers and 31 helicopters also have been bought.
He said plans are ready to reduce fire risks on 2.4 million acres of federalland, either through setting controlled burns or cutting out trees to thin theforests, up from 2.25 million acres treated last year.
Holtrop admitted that goal may not be reachable, however, since forests are sodry in New Mexico and Arizona that controlled burns are too risky.
Kyl said that if the Forest Service and Interior Department won’t thin forestsaggressively to reduce risk, then Congress might have to force them to.
“Everybody recognizes what needs to be done, but nobody’s willing to fight forit,” Kyl said.

On the Net: National Interagency Fire Center:
Senate natural resources committee: 


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