March 09, 2003 11:00 pm

Forest firefighting

budget needs boost

Over the years our forests have become dangerous powder kegs, just waiting to go off. In hindsight, stopping every fire the second it flared was not a wise decision. To correct the mistakes of the past will require many years — and more federal money.

As federal lawmakers prepare to support the president in going to war in the Middle East, they should also look out West. After using $919 million in funds from other programs to fight the fires of 2002, Washington only reimbursed $636 million for projects.

THESE FUNDS are important to sustaining healthy and safe forests. Fuel removal programs are vital to avoid catastrophic fires. If we are forced to spend all of our Forest Service funds to fight fires, we are hanging on by a thread, just waiting until we get a fire that will not be tamed.

The time to tame fires is before they start, by removing the accumulating fuel.

LARRY ARAGON, fire management officer for the La Grande Ranger District, said the district could potentially lose two of its three-person initial attack teams and its 10-person contract team who are employed during the fire season. The reductions would leave our district with five fire engines and crews for initial attack. More manpower is usually available from nearby districts should a fire get out of control, but even that may be stretched thin as firefighters from other districts will be cut as well.

La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann says that they "learned from last year" and are trying to get funds obligated to contracts as soon as possible. Last year the district lost around $300,000, money which could have been used for removing hazardous fuels from the forests.

EVERY YEAR THAT our forests are allowed to accumulate unneeded fuel we are in danger of having to spend millions to put out large blazes. Keeping our forests from burning up themselves and our budgets should be one of Washington's priorities. Naturally occurring forest fires can never be completely eliminated, nor should they be, but more money for prevention would help to keep them down to a manageable level.


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