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Wildfire budget in ‘crisis’

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – The federal government may have about 30 percent fewer firefighters for this year’s Western wildfire season than it did last year, according to lawmakers – setting the stage for what could be an election-year debacle on the fire lines.

“All indications suggest that this will be an extremely challenging fire season, and we cannot afford to allow our federal firefighter capability to fall so far below last year’s level,” Reps. Charles H. Taylor, R-N.C., and Norman D. Dicks, D-Wash., said in a letter late last week to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, addressing funding problems.

Taylor is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior and related agencies, which controls funding for the U.S. Forest Service, and Dicks is the panel’s ranking Democrat. They urged Veneman to divert money from other accounts to hire additional firefighters. The Agriculture Department oversees the Forest Service.

An internal memo for House Appropriations Committee members painted a dire picture. It said “major shortfalls” in the budget have created an “immediate wildfire-funding crisis.”

The staff memo warned that “absent action, this will result in failed firefighting efforts with potential for significant loss of lives and property.”

Last year, the Forest Service hired 10,500 temporary firefighters, but funding shortfalls mean the agency may be able to hire only 7,554 this year – about 3,000 fewer – according to the subcommittee.

A Bush administration official said the firefighting plan might be different this year but the federal government would be ready.

“Nobody need be concerned that we will be unprepared for this fire season,” Mark E. Rey, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said in an interview. “It is my judgment that we will meet and exceed last year’s performance.”

The federal government owns vast tracts of land in the West, and the Forest Service is a key component of regional firefighting efforts. The service says it was able to extinguish 98 percent of the fires it responded to last year in the critical “initial attack” phase, before they could spread.

Separately, Rey said that nine large military planes equipped for firefighting would be available to partly replace 33 tankers grounded last week. The Forest Service cited safety reasons in canceling its contracts with the private companies that own the tankers. The tankers are especially effective in the initial attack on a fire.

The Forest Service is putting the finishing touches on its fire season plan, added Rey, who declined to reveal specifics.

“It’s not dissimilar to budgeting for war,” he added. “You’re going to be confronted with on-the-spot variables, and that’s going to affect how it works.”

But the funding problems and the grounding of the tankers have raised concerns on Capitol Hill that the Forest Service is not ready. A rash of early fires has already struck Southern California.

“I am not at all certain that Washington officials understand the dire need to put all available resources in play with all due speed,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

One immediate problem, say congressional aides, is a shortfall of $60 million to $95 million in an account used to prepare for fire season. That account, called the “preparedness account,” includes money to hire temporary firefighters.

In their letter to Veneman on Friday, Reps. Taylor and Dicks urged the Agriculture Department to transfer $54 million from a separate account to hire the 3,000 firefighters. This second account, called the “suppression account,” is dedicated to paying the cost of fighting fires that have already broken out.

Congress gave the Forest Service an increase of nearly $250 million in the suppression account this year, bringing it to $597 million, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The preparedness account remained essentially flat at about $670 million.

Nonetheless, the Appropriations Committee staff memo said both accounts are in trouble. “There are major shortfalls in both the preparedness and suppression accounts,” said the memo.

It blamed the White House Office of Management and Budget, the closest thing to a chief accountant in the government, for skimping on firefighting resources.

“While the agencies are trying to address these issues, the OMB is once again refusing to address these realistic staffing and equipment needs,” the memo said.

“OMB feels the Forest Service is wasting money on firefighting,” said a congressional aide, who asked not to be identified.

Rey, the Agriculture official, said the White House was merely seeking to ensure that money was spent efficiently at a time of tight budgets throughout the government.

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