July 17, 2008

FLAME Act May Snuff Out State Fires

By Char Miller

The FLAME Act: its acronym is as vivid as any news footage of the hundreds of fires currently roaring across California. More properly known as H.R. 5541, the Federal Lands Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act establishes a long overdue emergency firefighting fund, a measure that finally passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 9. The terrifying images of California ablaze were partially responsible for the passage of this critical piece of legislation.

Confirmation of this connection comes from West Virginia representative Nick Rahall, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee: the "ongoing California fires, which started in unprecedented fashion when 1,700 fires erupted in a 48-hour period," he explained, "are only the most recent example of the dramatic and tragic expansion of our Nation's wildland fire season." It took a lot of smoke to clarify why Congress needed to support the national firefighting effort.

The act's central contribution - the creation of a stand-alone fund separate from individual federal agencies' appropriated firefighting dollars - appears to tinker with a technicality: it will not immediately add more boots to the ground; boost the number of bulldozers clearing firebreaks; or send skyward new squadrons of tankers or helicopters.

But it will do something just as vital: by untangling federal firefighting budgets, the act will straighten out the equivalent of a fire hose full of cash, money desperately needed to battle the life-threatening infernos that annually torch millions of acres of our national forests, parks, and grasslands. In resolving the funding stream, The FLAME Act will help a beleaguered California successfully respond to its increasingly red-hot fire seasons.

That's welcome news for the thousands of men and women now deployed on fire lines across the Golden State, whose valor was praised in another House resolution that passed on the same day as the FLAME Act. Yet what they want more than generous recognition for a job well done are the appropriate tools to stop fires from igniting in the first place. The act may help here, too.

By creating a discrete firefighting fund, it will enable the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and National Parks Service to augment cash-strapped fire-prevention programs. In the past, each federal agency has put scarce dollars and personnel to work thinning forests by cutting and prescribed burning; each has built defensible space around fire-prone communities nestled within or adjacent to public lands.

They have done so despite knowing that they're fighting a losing battle on two fronts, demographic and financial. As more and more people crowd into the wildland-urban interface surrounding many booming western metropolises (and in California alone that amounts to more than 2 million folks), their workload has increased exponentially.

Their budgets have not. Until recently, the Bush administration has decreased their funding, limiting their capacity to fight fire with fire. By mugging the budget-starved federal agencies during a period of deep drought and elevated temperatures, with fire seasons lengthening and intensifying, it has forced them to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The Forest Service, for instance, has stripped money and labor from its fire-prevention programs, recreational services, and other vital line items. Just how unbalanced its budget has become is manifest in its skewed outlays: In 1991, the agency spent a mere 13 percent of its total budget on firefighting; today fires consume upwards of 48 percent.

That startling increase has crippled its non-firefighting operations.

As a national-forest fire boss asked me rhetorically: "do we maintain trails or cut firebreaks?"

The FLAME Act may make that question less pressing, liberating the federal land-management agencies to combat fires and offer high- quality recreational opportunities; create healthier, more fire- resistant forests and better access to Nature's arboreal glories. These benefits will only accrue, however, if California Sens. Boxer and Feinstein join with their colleagues, and President Bush, and sign off on the FLAME Act. Let's hope they do: the tocsins are wailing.

Char Miller teaches in the environmental analysis program at Pomona College, and is author of "Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism,""Ground Work: Conservation in American Culture" and "The Greatest Good; 100 Years of Forestry in America."

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