House Panel Approves Cash for Wildfire Fight

A House committee voted Tuesday to provide an extra $700 million for battling wildfires that have raged across more than 3 million acres this year, mostly in the West.

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee approved the funds by voice vote, even though lawmakers and aides said the Bush administration opposes the extra money. The White House believes federal agencies have all the resources they need, legislators said.

"I'd suggest to OMB (the White House Office of Management and Budget) that they smell the smoke and recognize this is a serious problem," said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the committee's top Democrat.

The nearly 3.1 million acres burned so far this year are more than double the 1.3 million acre average to date over the last decade, according to federal statistics. Especially huge blazes have burned in Arizona and Colorado.

"This summer is off to one of the worst fire seasons ever," said Rep. Joseph Skeen, R-N.M.

The money would be on top of $2.27 billion enacted last fall for this year's anticipated firefighting costs.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who sponsored the amendment, distributed a July 8 memo in which Forest Service officials ordered regional offices to cut costs so the agency can afford a projected $966 million firefighting bill this year.

"It is clear that the priority of the Forest Service has been redefined by the current fire season," the memo said.

Though little opposition to the extra money was expressed, several Republicans blamed this season's spate of wildfires on federal environmental policies that they say have discouraged logging and clearing of dead timber.

The funds were included in a $19.7 billion measure financing federal land and cultural programs for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The overall bill, approved by voice vote, would also provide $2.2 billion for next year's firefighting costs. That is $200 million more than President Bush has proposed and has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House committee also:

--Voted 30-22 to include language by Obey noting that the bill included no funds for Bush's proposal to begin drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

--Approved a nonbinding provision by Dicks, also by voice vote, pressuring the Smithsonian Institution to curtail naming some facilities for corporate sponsors and to review the high salaries received by some of its top officials.