29 Apr 2008, 10:56am
Latest Fire News
by admin

Kimbell: We are a nation at war


DENVER — Wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico and last week’s fires in eastern Colorado mean another busy firefighting season is likely in store, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell, whose agency is grappling with bigger, more expensive fires while budgets stay flat.

Kimbell, in an interview with The Associated Press Thursday, said she hopes the above-average snowpack in the Rockies and Northwest will stick around to help cut the fire danger that has plagued the region in recent years.

But the wetter winter hasn’t stopped blazes from erupting this spring.

“These fires in New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado - in April - would indicate that we’ll be very busy this summer,” said Kimbell, in Denver to present a grant to a Denver school for an outdoors program.

A 4,600-acre fire was burning Thursday in New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains. A fire scorched roughly 5,000 acres along the Arizona-Mexico border earlier this week.

Last week in Colorado, where the mountain snowpack is deeper than it’s been in more than a decade, three fires burned a total of nearly 29 square miles. One of the wildfires was in the mountains.

A pilot was killed when his plane crashed while attacking a fire on the Fort Carson Army base south of Colorado Springs. Two volunteer fighters rushing to a quick-moving fire on the eastern plains died when a damaged bridge collapsed under their vehicle.

Even before the West dries out for the summer, the Forest Service has already spent $400 million on fires, including ones driven by drought in the Southeast and Southern California.

Adding to the costs is expansion of homes into forested areas because protecting structures can be expensive, said Rick Cables, Rocky Mountain regional forester for the Forest Service.

Nearly half the agency’s roughly $4 billion budget is spent on fires, including suppression and decreasing wildfire risk by reducing vegetation.

“Our budgets have been relatively flat over the last six, seven, eight years and larger percentages of that total are being spent on fire and fire suppression,” Kimbell said.

The Forest Service’s financial struggles have to be placed in context, the chief added.

“We are a nation at war and we’re a nation with a huge budget deficit,” Kimbell said, “so these budget issues are really challenging.”

Congress has approved supplemental funding to help the Forest Service, which has shifted money from other programs to pay for firefighting. There’s bipartisan support for a bill by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the natural resources panel, that would create a fund for the more catastrophic fires. Supporters include former Forest Service chiefs and employees.

“It would be very, very helpful,” Kimbell said of the bill.

Until the funding changes, the agency will continue looking for ways to cut costs while stressing the safety of both firefighters and the public. Kimbell said the Forest Service saved an estimated $200 million on firefighting last year by improving management and allocation of resources. The agency still spent almost $1.4 billion on fighting fires.

The Forest Service is working on a long-term analysis of the nation’s aerial firefighting program following fatal crashes of planes working on wildfires. One near Estes Park in 2002 killed both people on board.

Colorado Reps. John Salazar and Mark Udall, both Democrats, along with Rahall and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., wrote a letter Tuesday to Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer asking why the analysis hasn’t been released since it was promised last year.

Kimbell said she expects the report to be completed soon, but couldn’t say when. The Forest Service is preparing the report, but other federal agencies and state forestry departments are also involved.

“This isn’t just a simple matter of the Forest Service doing an analysis and presenting the analysis,” Kimbell said. “We’re working with those different agencies. It makes a difference.”



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