Governors, Cabinet secretaries agree to cooperate to fight fires |

Governors, Cabinet secretaries agree to cooperate to fight fires

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) – Western governors and Cabinet secretaries agreed Monday to help implement a national plan aimed at reducing wildfires.

The memorandum of understanding is a centerpiece of the Western Governors’ Association annual summer meeting here. Governors from 14 states and U.S. territories, and premiers of six Canadian provinces were meeting to discuss common issues, such as wildfires and electricity transmission.

The 10-year plan calls for improved prevention and suppression of wildfires, particularly those near populated areas, by reducing brush and debris that can fuel catastrophic blazes. It also seeks a long-term solution for wildlife habitat restoration and rehabilitation.

Last August, in the midst of one of the most disastrous wildland fire seasons in 50 years, President Clinton directed the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop what became known as the National Fire Plan.

More than 8 million acres were scorched last year, most of them in the arid West. That compares to about 1.9 million acres that have burned so far this fire season, which ends in October.

When funding the 2001 appropriations, which led to the hiring this summer of more than 5,000 additional firefighters, Congress called for a strategy for reducing wildfire risks over the next decade.

The memorandum of understanding signed by leaders of the western governor’s group and by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton promises a detailed roadmap by May 1, 2002 for implementing the plan.

The price tag for thinning forests to reduce the amount of fuel fires can burn, and for teaching landowners about reducing fire risks will be ”a very significant increase” over current funding, Norton said.

Lyle Laverty, U.S. Forest Service national fire plan coordinator, said Agriculture and Interior got about $1.7 billion more this year than the previous year to carry out provisions of the national fire plan.

”We continue to evaluate what the appropriate level of funding is going to be,” Norton said.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who chaired the governors’ committee that drew up the collaborative approach to reducing wildland fire risks, said Congress will have to be persuaded to increase funding every year for a decade so the fuel reduction projects can be completed.

Sluggish federal environmental reviews will need to be sped up to allow the projects to be completed, without sacrificing environmental considerations, Kitzhaber said.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said he was ”quite nervous” about the amount of dead wood, brush and debris in the forests that could lead to catastrophic wildfires.

”The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be” to clear forests of fire fuels, he said. ”This is going to be a 10-, 15-, 20-year effort and how well we do will depend upon whether we get the funding to do it.”

Bosworth’s boss Veneman, and Norton, who oversees Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighting efforts, said Congress has supported funding the national fire plan.

”Congress was very receptive and has included, essentially, the levels we requested in our budgets,” Norton said. ”It was because we had this collaborative process showing an agreement on what the level of need would be.”

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