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Senate grills officials on wildfires

WASHINGTON – On the day the Wallow fire became the largest wildfire in Arizona history, federal land management officials told a Senate committee Tuesday that their agencies are "prepared adequately" for the summer's firefighting season.

"Together with local and state help, we have the premier wildland firefighting organization in the world," U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said. "And I believe it is an example of government at its best. We believe we have adequate resources."

The appearance before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources brought a grilling from senators on both sides of the aisle, who wanted to know why the agency is not doing more fire prevention work and how it can get by on a reduced budget.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told the committee there needs to be more emphasis on preventing fires, rather than putting them out once they start.

"The cost of fighting fires far exceeds the cost of prevention. It's like any other medical situation: Prevention will save you a lot of money in the long run," said Kyl, who has a cabin in Greer, one of the area's affected by the state's wildfires.

He said thinning forests by removing excess vegetation causes fires to burn more slowly and closer to the ground, which makes firefighting more manageable.

"This one fire (Wallow) costs $65 million to fight. Imagine how much land we could have treated if we put that money up front," Kyl said.

He also said forest thinning saves lives, crediting the practice with sparing four communities in the eastern part of the state.

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Tidwell said his agency has increased its prevention efforts, thinning nearly 3 million acres in the past year, double the amount from 10 years ago.

Tidwell said the Forest Service has sufficient personnel to fight the fires nationally, even though there have already been twice as many this year as in an average year.

He also said increased snowpack in California and the northern and central Rocky Mountain states could help conditions for much of the West.

"In the Sierras, Cascades and central and northern Rockies, we have record snow packs. So it remains to be seen just how severe this fire season really is going to be," Tidwell said.

But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pressed Tidwell on what will happen in drier years, particularly since the service has proposed reducing parts of its budget this year. He pointed out that the Forest Service has proposed $200 million in reductions, what Tidwell later called a "slight reduction."

"I think if you don't deal with these reductions – you said they're small – this problem is just going to continue to grow. And when it is dry, we're going to see these infernos," Wyden said.

He also probed the chief about delays in replacing 45-year-old air tankers that are used to fight wildfires, referencing two 2002 air tanker crashes.

"The wildland fire aviation program . . . has been a battle raging almost as long as the Trojan War," Wyden asked. "Why is it taking so long?"

Tidwell said half the current tanker fleet, which averages 50 years old, would need to be replaced in the next 10 years, but that the Forest Service has a plan.

"We're studying the options and making recommendations by the end of the summer," Tidwell said.

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Nick Newman/Cronkite News Service

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., questions officials about the need for more fire prevention at a hearing Tuesday on federal agencies’ handling of wildfires around the country.