WASHINGTON — Wildfires around California's Lake Tahoe and Alaska's Kenai Peninsula are fanning the firefighting costs that officials are trying to curtail.
The federal government anticipates spending nearly $3 billion this year to prevent and fight wildfires on public lands, but new gusts could drive spending even higher.
The conflict between the urge to extinguish all fires and the costs of doing so comes as the Bush administration pushes for continued cuts in the Forest Service budget. The administration has proposed cutting Forest Service spending next year to $4.7 billion from $5 billion this year.
Wildland fire management spending also would fall under the administration's proposal, and critics charge that the federal government has done a poor job of managing the money it spends.
"Officials in the field lack a clear understanding of the relative importance that the agencies' leadership places on containing costs, and therefore are likely to select firefighting strategies without due consideration of the costs of suppression," federal auditor Robin Nazzaro told a Senate panel Tuesday.
Nazzaro directs the natural resources and environment section of the Government Accountability Office. For the past several years, the non-partisan congressional watchdog agency has identified problems with how the Forest Service and Interior Department manage firefighting costs.
Last year, the federal government spent $14.1 million to contain the month-long Potato Fire in Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest. The two-week-long Ralston Fire in the Tahoe National Forest last September cost $13 million. Topping them all, fighting the 2 1/2-month Tripod Complex Fire in Washington's Okanogan National Forest cost $74.2 million.
A review panel concluded last month that the Forest Service exercised "fiscal diligence" in battling each of these major fires. Congress ordered the independent review of all fires that cost more than $10 million to fight.
The Forest Service prudently managed all of last year's 19 major fires, including three in Idaho, two in Washington and 11 in California, found the review, which was managed by The Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington policy institute.
"We share the GAO's interest in increasing accountability and cost-containment," said Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.
The Forest Service is improving, Nazzaro said Tuesday. For instance, the agency is reportedly doing a better job of buying firefighting equipment. The Forest Service now manages smokejumpers, hot shot crews and heavy air tankers as national assets, easing cost-effective decision-making.
Since last August, a new Forest Service comptroller has overseen the agency's fire suppression spending, including reviews of several costly fires in California and Washington.
Nonetheless, Nazzaro cautioned that a "lack of clear goals or a strategy hinders" efforts to restrain firefighting costs.
"For example," Nazzaro reported to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "air tankers may drop flame retardants when on-the-ground conditions may not warrant such drops."
Individual commanders may become so consumed by their own fights that they miss the bigger picture. For instance, auditors believe that commanders sometimes refuse to release idle firefighters for fear that they'll suddenly be left shorthanded.
Other times, local commanders feel squeezed from above.
"Studies have reported that agencies sometimes used more, or more-costly, firefighting assets than necessary, often in response to political or social pressures," the GAO noted.
The agency said, "considerable work remains" if the Forest Service and Interior Department are to make use of "less aggressive strategies, which typically cost less."
The Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe's south shore so far has burned some 2,500 acres and destroyed about 200 homes. The 65,000-acre Caribou Hills wildfire on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, has burned at least 88 cabins and residences.