Grand County " Separate fund to pay for catastrophic wildfires makes sense |

Grand County " Separate fund to pay for catastrophic wildfires makes sense

We made it to September without a wildfire in Grand County. And by looking at the dwindling U.S. Forest Service budget for fighting wildfires, we couldn’t be more grateful.

We can only hold out hope that this county, with its tinderbox of pine beetle-killed trees, will make it to the end of 2008 without a spark.

Of course, not every community has been so lucky.

Firefighters are still working to contain an 834-acre blaze near Meeker in the Windy Gulch Wilderness Study Area. As of Tuesday, a 131-acre fire had air tankers and personnel busy near Rifle.

Any more, it seems the United States can’t make it through a season without the news filling with flames from California, Arizona and the Rocky Mountain states.

The costs of fighting these wildfires rise every year. Strangely, as these costs rise, the funding for the Forest Service, and by extension firefighting, is being cut.

Former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas testified to Congress that the current system of funding firefighting has been “tragic” in its results. Reductions in personnel, office closings and other cost-saving efforts became counterproductive and demoralized the agency.

Currently, the costs of fighting wildfires are factored into the Forest Service budget. But this year alone, the costs were $400 million more than expected, causing the Forest Service to pull the money shortfall from a range of programs.

This is the third year in a row the Forest Service had to raid its own budget to fight wildfires.

To make matters worse, the fiscal year 2009 Forest Service budget is $4.109 billion, down from $4.126 billion in 2008, which was a cut from 2007 when the budget was $4.126 billion.

Meanwhile, firefighting costs have exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000.

How does this equation make sense?

Fortunately, the U.S. Congress is examining the problem. Legislation is moving through Congress right now to create separate emergency funding source for wildfire suppression. This would fall in line with the way our government currently funds the clean up of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes.

The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (H.R. 5541 – FLAME Act) was introduced this spring in the House.

This bill passed in the House and was received in the Senate. It is under review by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

If H.R. 5541 passes in its current form, Congress would have to approve the money for the fund each year. The predictable amounts for fire suppression activities would continue to be covered by the Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. The new emergency fund would be used for catastrophic fires.

As residents of a community that backs up to national forest, BLM land and a national park, it is in our best interest to make sure the government makes wise fiscal decisions when it comes to protecting us from wildfires.

Moving unexpected wildfire expenses out of the Forest Service budget and into a separate fund makes sense.

To express your support, contact U.S. Senator Wayne Allard in his Denver office. By mail at 7340 E. Caley, Suite 215, Englewood, CO 80111, by phone: (303) 220-7414, by fax: (303) 220-8126 or U.S. Senator Ken Salazar in his Denver office. By phone at (303) 455-7600, by fax at (303) 455-8851, or by mail at 2300 15th Street, Suite 450, Denver, CO 80202.

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