Forest Service Calls for Change in Priorities

After a rough year of wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service is calling for an overhaul of the agency's firefighting priorities. A new report advises changes such as letting backwoods fires burn themselves out, and putting more financial responsibility for wildfire control on state and local governments.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Northwest of Los Angeles, a wildfire in Ventura County, California has burned more than 9,000 acres. Firefighters are still trying to control the fire. The U.S. Forest Service spent a billion and a half dollars fighting fires last year, but a new government audit is calling on state and local governments to pick up more of that tab.

From Denver, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Three years ago, a fire in Central Oregon - called the B and B fire - burned 90,000 acres and cost $40 million to fight. The Forest Service picked up the bulk of the tab, even though most of the battle was keeping the fire away from private houses built near federal land.

Government auditors say in such cases, local government should pay a larger share of the bill. But the lightning sparked fire started on federal land and moved toward the houses. Arizona State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh offers an analogy.

Mr. KIRK ROWDABAUGH (Arizona State Forester): To keep those fires from spreading onto non-federal lands is a bit like having your neighbor to pay to fix his brakes on his car before he loses control of it and it runs into your house.

BRADY: Rowdabaugh says the Forest Service - the neighbor - mismanaged public land by allowing the forest to become overgrown. He thinks the agency should have been thinning and using prescribed burns all along to keep the forest healthy.

But Tom Harbour says the problem is broader than that. He's the director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service. Harbour says population in areas where public forests meet private land is growing.

Mr. TOM HARBOUR (Fire and Aviation Management, Forest Service): People move into these undeveloped lands and have an expectation that the same kinds of services that they were used to in the cities will be provided to them in the wild lands.

BRADY: The Department of Agriculture's Inspector General says those homeowners have come to rely on the Forest Service to be their fire department. If the local governments that let people move into these areas had to pay more of the fire fighting costs, auditors argue there'd be more incentive to require homeowners to fireproof their homes - for example, clearing brush away from homes and installing metal rather than wood shingle roofs.

The audit addressed another issue, whether more fire should be allowed to burn in wild areas to thin overgrown forests. The Forest Service, with mascot Smokey Bear, spent a century fighting every blaze on public land. Now fires are explosive because there's so much wood and brush to burn. If fires burn more regularly and cooler, some of the big trees can still survive and the forests are healthier.

But it's been difficult of the Forest Service to change from fire battle mode to thinking some fires are good for the environment. Andy Stahl is with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

Mr. ANDY STAHL (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics): It's very tough for a forest manager to say let's take the risk of letting this fire burn. Even if it's a very small risk of a house being affected and the environmental benefits are overwhelming good from the fire, if something goes wrong, it can mean the end of your career.

BRADY: Stahl says that while the Forest Service has changed its policies and given managers permission to let some fires burn, that isn't happening on the ground. In recent years, the agency has let only 2 percent of fires burn to improve forest health.

Forest Service managers say they'll follow all the recommendations of the audit. The agency will renegotiate cost-sharing contracts with state and local governments, and in coming years it will train more of its fire managers to know when to let some fires burn.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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