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Wildfire Launches Funding Firestorm

posted on September 4, 2009

Sen. Barbara Boxer on Thursday urged the U.S. Forest Service to dedicate more money to reduce wildfire danger in high-risk areas before another blaze threatens homes and lives.

The massive wildfire burning north of Los Angeles is being fueled by dry, overgrown brush, and similar conditions exist across the Southwest.

The Forest Service uses machines and hand crews to trim or thin brush, or sometimes starts intentional fires known as prescribed burns, to clear overgrown areas and reduce fire risk. The money available to cut back or clear fire-prone vegetation needs to go "where the threat to communities is greatest," Boxer said.

"Too often, dead or dying trees and chaparral, in many cases where fire has not occurred for decades, becomes the fuel for fires that cannot be controlled," she wrote in a letter to the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service.

The California Democrat said the agency must use its limited funds in highly threatened areas "before a firestorm occurs."

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement Thursday that his agency is committed to finding the best ways to prevent and fight wildfires. But he did not address Boxer's proposal to direct more money to high-risk areas.

"We are committed to working with members of Congress, including Sen. Boxer, and our partners at other levels of government, to develop effective techniques for preventing and fighting these destructive fires in the future," he said.

The senator's letter was released a day after The Associated Press reported that federal authorities failed to complete plans earlier this year to burn away highly flammable brush in the Angeles National Forest, where the wildfire is burning on the edge of the nation's second-largest city.

The massive fire has claimed the lives of two firefighters, ravaged more than 250 square miles and destroyed more than 60 homes. Firefighters said the blaze was 38 percent contained Thursday.

Months before the blaze erupted, the Forest Service obtained permits to burn brush on more than 1,700 acres, but only 193 acres had been cleared by the time the fire broke out.

Money also ran out to send crews into the forest to clear fire-prone areas after about 5,000 acres had been trimmed or cleared.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Congress needs to make changes to encourage prescribed burns and forest thinning to prevent backcountry areas from becoming dangerously overgrown.

"I believe the pendulum has swung too far toward not allowing these types of proactive measures to occur. I also strongly believe we need to make changes, especially in wilderness areas," McKeon said in a statement.

The current fire is the largest in the recorded history of the Angeles National Forest, which was established in 1892 as a timber reserve and became a national forest in 1905, Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said more needed to be done to clear brush from residential areas. Homes were lost, he said, because that work wasn't done.

With more brush cut down, "the number of structures lost might have been cut almost in half," Sherman said.


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