By Keith Chu
Wescom News Service
WASHINGTON As the U.S. Forest Service's tab to fight last year's record wildfires spiraled, local forests felt the burn.
The Forest Service spent $1.5 billion about twice what it budgeted that year and the difference came out of the agency's other operations.
"It basically creates, across our region and our forests, a sense of uncertainty of what our accomplishments will be for the year," said Deschutes National Forest Supervisor Leslie Weldon of the practice, known as "fire transfers." Weldon will leave her forest supervisor post in June to be the chief of staff for external affairs at the agency's national headquarters.
But lawmakers recently created a safety blanket just in case forest fires again exceed expectations.
The Iraq funding bill, which was signed into law by President Bush on Friday, provides a total of $465 million nationwide in reserve funds to cover forest fire spending that goes over budget. Of that amount, $375 million will go to the Forest Service and $95 million to the Bureau of Land Management.
Congress created a similar fund three years ago, with a total of $1 billion between the Forest Service and Interior Department agencies. The fund was drained last year.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., railed against the White House's opposition to a proposal to refill that reserve account.
"It's the same process we decry is happening in the military if we don't properly fund our troops," Walden said. "They will rip into these accounts, they will cancel the contracts and they will set us behind. That is what happens to the Forest Service."
Projecting fire spending is uncertain business. Last year, even adding $375 million wouldn't have covered the costs of fighting a massive wildfire season. According to the estimates from the National Interagency Fire Center, the wildland firefighting support center, roughly 96,000 fires burned a total of almost 9.9 million acres nationwide in 2006.
Weldon said the transfers drain funding from all areas of the forest's budget. Fire transfer figures for the Deschutes National Forest weren't available last week.
"It first affects, in general, our fire-related funding," including fire prevention, Weldon said. "It varies after that. Some of our large contracting activities may be affected and I think it has been some of the construction type dollars, and certain projects may be put on hold or delayed."
Local forests are supposed to be reimbursed for money they lose to firefighting. But Congress has historically reimbursed just 80 percent of money taken away in fire transfers, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office study.
For 2008, the administration proposed $911 million for firefighting, based on the average yearly firefighting costs over the past decade.