April 25, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Forest Service management plans for fighting wildland fires are inadequate nationwide and, in some places, nonexistent, according to a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The GAO report, prepared for members of Congress and released this week, analyzes the progress of the Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) and the Department of Interior in improving management, cost accounting and equipment purchase since the National Fire Plan was implemented in 2001. The GAO is the nonpartisan accounting arm of Congress.

The auditors found that one year after receiving $830 million more from Congress under the fire plan, "the agencies are still putting out the same percentage of fires at initial attack," as they were in previous years. Firefighting money went from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $2.9 billion in 2001.

Further, the report says that the federal agencies have not yet determined the number of firefighters and the amount of equipment needed for firefighting and land protection, and they "may not be as prepared as they could to manage fires."

The GAO acknowledged that the federal land management agencies "have made progress in increasing their firefighting preparedness needs," but the report calls for fire management plans to be completed for all units. According to the GAO, of the 1,384 federal management units, 695 either had outdated management plans or no plans at all as of Sept. 30.

Only the Bureau of Land Management "has fully complied with the fire policy requirement that all burnable acres have fire management plans," the report states.

A chart prepared by the GAO shows that 41 percent of the Forest Service's burnable acres is without a plan. When the GAO asked fire managers why plans were out of date, "they most often told us that higher priorities precluded them from providing the necessary resources to prepare and update the plans."

The requirement to develop fire management plans was issued in 1995, but most of the federal agencies that fight forest fires are not expected to have complete management planning models in place for several years, the report states. The plans are necessary to specify whether "fires in particular areas should be suppressed immediately, controlled to some degree, or permitted to burn naturally."

Without management plans, the agencies must actively and fully suppress all wildland fires, a method that land managers have said contributes over time to excessive underbrush and the overcrowding of trees, especially in the lowland ponderosa pine forests of Northeast Oregon.

Planning for protecting urban areas adjacent to federal lands (the urban interface) is also inadequate, the GAO reported, and the federal agencies are neither coordinating planning and modeling nor planning across agency boundaries.

"None of the models focuses on the goals of protecting communities at the wildland-urban interfaceÂ…," the report states.

But Rex Holloway, a spokesman for the Forest Service's Region 6 in Portland, said in the Northwest, coordination between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management is commonplace.

"In Oregon and Washington (Region 6), the fire director for the Forest Service is also the fire director for BLM," he said. "The fire organizations have been working together for three years or more.

"We could do better (planning), but what's happening in Oregon is, I think, a model of what we should be doing nationwide."

Management plans following the format required under the fire plan are in the works, Holloway said Thursday.

Funds allocated for equipment have not been spent, and the Forest Service does not have sufficient equipment needed under the national fire plan, the GAO says.

The Forest Service did not include in its 2001 budget requests all of the money needed to purchase equipment and pay associated costs. That failure caused a total budget shortfall of about $101 million in fiscal year 2001, the report says.

"Until this equipment is acquired, a few fire managers are taking measures to compensate for these shortcomings, such as contracting for needed equipment with state and private suppliers," the report says.

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest purchased nine engines during 2001 and awarded five private contracts, according to an announcement from Supervisor Karyn Wood.

Holloway said that contracting for equipment and manpower to fight fires can save the Forest Service maintenance costs.

Both the Forest Service and the Department of Interior lack adequate performance measurements that could clearly show the effectiveness of new resources, the GAO said.

"Without results-oriented performance measures, it is difficult to hold the Forest Service accountable for the results it achieves from the additional resources," the GAO said.

The GAO has suggested that the agencies use identical or nearly identical methods of measuring performance.