Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-08-2008 @ 12:48:11
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U.S. needs to keep fire tanker funding

WHILE trying to slash billions of dollars from the federal budget to help cover the costs of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration wants to cut funding, a move that would ground much of the federal fire-fighting tanker fleet.

This would be a bad idea.

While western states have managed to get through the last two years without a major flare-up of wildfires, wet winters and long, hot summers mean that the inevitable has only been delayed.

If major fires break out next year, we could find ourselves with a 50 to 75 percent reduction in our aerial fire fighting capability.

The administration wants to cut a $500 million reserve fund that's tapped to battle blazes across California and the West during heavy fire years. The $700 million annual fire-fighting budget is often exceeded, with costs rising to more than $1 billion.

"This fund -- developed on a bipartisan basis -- ensured that fire-fighting costs could be met," said California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. And environmentalists also have joined to oppose the proposal, which requires congressional approval.

Any year when the fire season worsens, the U.S. Forest Service would have to cancel other efforts, such as removing dead and dying trees, that are needed for fire control.

Coupled with a proposed spending limit of $100 million next year on federal aerial fire fighting, it would severely cripple the tanker fleet.

The Forest Service, which has spent nearly $200 million on aviation this year, would be required to complete a lengthy justification process if it wanted to surpass the $100 million limit in future years.

The requirement "will effectively shut down the Forest Service's aviation program in fiscal year 2006, with the exception of some limited use of air tankers late in the fiscal year," according to a memo that recently surfaced.

Representatives of the administration's Office of Management and Budget defended the moves, saying the reduced allocations will be adequate. Forest Service officials also downplayed the memo.

The developments come as Forest Service officials await the completion of an investigation into an April crash of a former Navy P-3 patrol aircraft in Northern California, following mid-air breakups of other large, aging air tankers under contract to the Forest Service.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which maintains the second largest fleet of air tankers, is concerned about the state of the federal fleet.

"It's always public safety when you're talking about wildland fires and urban interface, and that potential continues to grow in California," said Mike Padilla, the state agency's aviation chief.

It all adds up to major concerns about the state's ability to cope with devastating wild fires. Potential funding cuts only exacerbate a problem that haunts Californians each season.

While trying to save money to pay for the war and previous natural disasters, the government may be leaving us unprepared to tackle the whims of nature in California and the West. We trust that Congress won't be hasty.

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