Wildfire funds run dry - Agency tells forests to look for extra cash

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian


The U.S. Forest Service has spent its $426 million firefighting budget and must now ask national forests to give back money allocated for other work, regional budget officers said Monday.

Given the intensity of wildfires still burning in the West and the likelihood of other large fires before the season's end, firefighting costs could exceed $770 million.

In a conference call Monday, forest supervisors in Montana and northern Idaho were told to start looking for "unobligated balances" that could go toward the national firefighting effort.

"Looking at what we are spending to put out fires these days, we had expected we might be in this situation," said deputy regional forester Kathy McAllister. "We told folks before the season began to get their projects obligated before July 1, so we get the most important work accomplished."

"At the same time, though, we also asked people to be fairly conservative with their travel schedules and other such activities," she said. "We have a national situation here. We need to make smart decisions about everything we do."

Regional budget director Mike Paterni said fire transfers likely will be ordered in increments of $200 million, although no one knows how much money each region will be asked to contribute.

Last summer, when the Forest Service spent $1 billion fighting wildfires, national forests transferred $850 million to the firefighting budget from other accounts. Of that amount, $635 million was restored by Congress - albeit many months later.

Among the projects that lost money to the firefighting effort last year was the rehabilitation of areas burned on the Bitterroot National Forest during the 2000 wildfire season and research into fire behavior and prevention at the Forest Service's Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula.

"It's an impact, no question," Paterni said Monday. "A lot of people get frustrated and disappointed. A fair amount of restoration work from the 2000 fires was deferred, and some projects were not funded."

Salaries will not be affected by the fire transfers, McAllister said, as those are considered "obligated balances." Most other areas, however, are potential targets, including fire prevention projects.

Agency officials had hoped Congress would approve a $300 million supplemental appropriation for firefighting before its summer recess. President Bush made the request, but the House Republican leadership cut the wildfire money before leaving Washington on July 25.

Now the firefighting account has run dry.

"We are ever-hopeful that when Congress comes back, they will enact a supplemental appropriation and we will see these funds returned to us," McAllister said. "But for now, we are looking for the money internally."

The federal Office of Management and Budget has been insistent in recent years that the Forest Service find ways to fight wildfires more efficiently and at lower cost - and that any overruns be recouped by taking money from other agency accounts.

"I do give OMB credit for looking out for taxpayers and making sure their money is spent wisely," McAllister said, "but district rangers see huge logic in continuing to get our program accomplished while we deal with these wildfires."

The problem, of course, is the cost of fighting fires. The Blackwall and Frog Pond fires on the Bitterroot National Forest have cost $7 million over the past two weeks. The Wedge Canyon fire in northwestern Montana and Glacier National Park could eventually cost more than $30 million.

"These fires are incredibly expensive," Paterni said. "They are trying to cut costs, but there's only so much you can do when you're up against fires these substantial."

This summer, the Northern Region has assigned a business management administrator to every major wildfire, to help keep track of costs and to help incident commanders in "rational decision-making," Paterni said. "But we don't want to second-guess the professional fire managers in how they do their business. Fighting the fire safely is always the priority."

Also new this summer is the level of review needed when a fire command team writes its initial firefighting plan. Any fire that is expected to cost more than $2 million must be reviewed by a forest supervisor. At $10 million, the review bumps to the regional forester. And at $50 million, the chief of the Forest Service must approve the plan of attack.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com


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