Western Wildfire Fighting Budgets Take a Beating

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When lightning struck southwestern Oregon last summer, Steve Baker could smell the smoke within hours from his house on a wooded ridge overlooking the Applegate Valley.

Firefighters managed to keep Baker's home from being consumed. "I absolutely 100 percent feel if the firefighters weren't here, it would have burned down," he said.

He may not be so lucky this summer.

Due to sharp reductions in the state budget, the Oregon Department of Forestry begins this year's fire season facing a 22 percent spending cut. That means fewer firefighting crews, fire lookouts, fire engines and helicopters for the quick response that makes the difference between a small fire and a raging inferno.

Oregon's dilemma is being played out across the West, where continuing drought is expected to once again produce tinder-dry forests with no sympathy for economic recession or tight budgets.

Computer models predict the cuts will mean spending more than $11 million extra to fight big fires that get out of control and the loss of $22 million worth of resources, such as timber, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

"So it's pay now or pay later," said Bill Lafferty, Oregon's fire program manager. "All you can look at is historical averages. And last year was far beyond any historical average we've experienced."

Around the West, other states are taking a hard look at their firefighting budgets. While Colorado has an $850 million state budget gap to plug, Rich Homann, supervisor of the state Fire Division, doesn't anticipate any cuts to the firefighting budget after 915,000 acres and 235 homes burned last summer.

But California and Washington are cutting.

In Washington, the governor's budget proposal would slice 15 percent from the $29 million firefighting budget, parking 21 of the state's 113 wildland fire engines, and idling 230 firefighters.

"We are clearly putting people's land, property and potentially people in harm's way," said Washington State Forester Pat McElroy. "It's tough choice time."

In California, Gov. Gray Davis spared the state Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention deep cuts, but firefighting still must shave $1.7 million from a $500 million budget. To make up the difference, California is closing two air tanker bases and staffing 22 northern California fire lookouts only during emergencies.

"If we have to choose between fire engines or firefighters and lookouts, we are going to choose keeping the engines and firefighters," said department spokeswoman Karen Terrill. "We are arriving at full force this year at our fires."

In Oregon, a complex system of matching funds -- from private timberland owners, federal funds and other sources -- means that cutting state spending by $3.4 million means cutting the firefighting budget $18.9 million.

The department figures the cuts are forcing state forestry districts 15 percent to 30 percent below their most efficient level of firefighting for the 16 million acres they protect -- more than half the state.

Statewide, it means parking 19 of the 190 wildland fire engines available last year, closing 15 of 32 fire lookouts, and leaving 121 of 550 seasonal positions unfilled.

Budget cuts mean Jeff Schwanke, in charge of firefighting efforts in southwestern Oregon, won't have any of his seasonal firefighters trained and ready until July 1, two weeks later than normal. Last year's fire season was up and roaring in the middle of July, a month earlier than normal.

Schwanke will still have access to a light plane to scout for fires after lightning storms, but the helicopter normally sitting outside his office ready to dump 350-gallon buckets of water will be gone.

"It's going to have a huge impact on the fires we have to fight," Schwanke said of the cuts. "We'll probably have to make up the difference with contract crews. They don't go when the bells go off like our own crews do."

Getting taxpayers to pay more is a tough sell, even for Baker, who fled his home with his wife, Dawn, as fire bore down. They both voted against a temporary tax increase to prevent state budget cuts, but voted in favor of funding their local fire department.

"I don't see a reason to spend millions of dollars fighting a fire," said Steve Baker. "I almost think the landowner needs to take more responsibility. The money should be spent on structure protection."