Forest Service Faces Rising Firefighting Costs

Major wildfires have drained manpower and financial resources in several western states. Since 1960, six of the 10 worst fire seasons — counting acres burned — have occurred in the last seven years.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In the western part of the country, wildfires are the problem. It's been such a bad year that money for fighting them is running out. So Congress will be asked to appropriate nearly half a billion dollars in additional federal money.

That's on top of the billion dollars that's already been spent this year, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Federal firefighting budgets are based on an average of the last 10 years. But that formula doesn't always work. Sometimes the money runs out before the season does. Mike Wallace with the National Park Service says fire managers like him are drawing up supplementary budget requests for $450 million. Such requests have come more often than not in recent years.

Mr. MIKE WALLACE (National Park Service): Since 1960, six of the 10 worst fire seasons, as far as acres burned, have occurred in the last seven years.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BRADY: Fighting just one fire can run into the millions of dollars. That's because it takes a lot of people and expensive equipment like this helicopter that was dropping water on a fire near Boise recently.

Unidentified Man #1: I got (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: It's okay. I got you right below us.

BRADY: Now, the helicopter and the folks on the ground have spotted each other. The helicopter is lowering, covering - there's goes the water out of the bottom of the helicopter.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) thanks for your help.

BRADY: In California, near Santa Barbra, crews have been trying since the Fourth of July to contain the Zaca fire. It scorched about 230,000 acres and a huge mushroom cloud of smoke rises over the mountains.

Kit Bailey is a manager on the fire, and says the hot, dry weather and the topography are working against his crews.

Mr. KIT BAILEY (U.S. Forest Service Fire Management Officer): There is extremely steep terrain. I mean in some cases it's near vertical slopes, and of course we can't do much on those.

BRADY: Bailey has been a firefighter for more than 30 years. In that time, he says, fires have gotten bigger and more intense. One reason is that forests on public land are overgrown. For much of the 20th century the Forest Service had a policy of putting out every fire before 10:00 a.m. the next day. Fire suppression was a message effectively conveyed by Smokey Bear and celebrity spokespeople.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Mr. CHEECH MARIN (Actor): Hey, man. You've seen a bear go by here?

Mr. THOMAS CHONG (Actor): A bear?

Mr. MARIN: Yeah, man. He had on a ranger's hat.

Mr. CHONG: A bear with a ranger's hat? Oh, come on, man.

Mr. MARIN: Yeah, man. He had a shovel in his hand too.

BRADY: Since this radio ad featuring Cheech and Chong aired in 1985, attitudes toward fire have changed, but the problem of overgrown forests persists, and now it's made worst by droughts and a warmer climate. The timber industry tends to focus on the overgrown forest issue.

Ellen Engstedt heads the Montana Wood Products Association.

Ms. ELLEN ENGSTEDT (Montana Wood Products Association): The real problem is having a thousand trees per acre, instead of 50 or 100 trees per acre, which was the norm when we were doing active management.

BRADY: By active management, she's referring to the past, when there was more logging on public land. The industry believes increasing logging again would help restore unhealthy forests. Essentially, logging would accomplish what fire would have naturally. Environmentalists have a different plan.

Sean Cosgrove with the Sierra Club says more fires should be allowed to burn in the backcountry.

Mr. SEAN COSGROVE (Sierra Club): Fire is a natural part of our environment. It's just like wind. It's just like rain. Sometimes it's unpleasant, but we do have ways to deal with it.

BRADY: Cosgrove believes the government should focus efforts just in areas where people live. That would save money and return fire to its natural role out in the wild. The timber industry says its plan also would save the government money. But neither proposal has been embraced. And this year land managers find themselves in another bind, asking Congress for more money to fight huge wildfires.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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