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Wildfires Burn a Large Hole in the Forest Service's Pockets

Finances: The agency's funds for battling blazes are nearly $650 million short, with more acreage lost than in previous years.

July 14, 2002|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that it will spend $966 million this year fighting forest fires--far more than the $321 million the agency had been allocated for this year's fire season.

As a result, the agency's top forester has asked that discretionary spending be curtailed until costs stabilize or extra funds become available.

In an internal memo sent to regional foresters, station directors and other Forest Service personnel last week, Chief Dale N. Bosworth wrote that the agency's funds for fighting fires "are at their lowest level in recent years" and no additional funds appeared to be forthcoming. Bosworth asked foresters to avoid incurring additional financial obligations "wherever possible."

He suggested that Forest Service managers save money by rescheduling or deferring noncritical travel and projects. But Bosworth's directive also means the agency will have to refrain from activities that are central to the Forest Service's mission, such as obligating funds for more parkland.

Jody Cook, supervisor of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California, said that, under the directive, the Angeles will curtail most discretionary spending, including travel and training. "It's a guessing game," Cook said. "We won't know the final bill until October," when the new fiscal year begins.

According to Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch, officials look at their budget numbers "on an almost daily basis" during fire season. The directive was issued after they realized, halfway through the fire season, that nationally, more acreage had burned this year than in 2000, which Valetkevitch called a "banner year for forest fires."

At its peak, the recent Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona cost $8 million a day to fight; costs on the Hayman fire in Colorado ran more than $1 million a day.

The Interior Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay some of the costs of fighting those and other fires, but the $966-million estimate of firefighting costs is for Forest Service spending alone.

The Forest Service is the nation's largest wildfire-fighting outfit, employing more than 10,000 people to battle blazes.

Valetkevitch said the agency expects to be reimbursed in the 2003 budget appropriations now underway for the extra funds needed to fight this year's fires. President Bush's 2003 budget, she said, requests $420.6 million for Forest Service fire-suppression operations.

"We have always been reimbursed in the past, and we will ask for and expect to get reimbursed," she said.

"But we fully expect to meet our fire-suppression needs."

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