After President George W. Bush's visit to southern California, the post-Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency is getting good reviews for its help to the hundreds of thousands who fled this week's wildfires. But while the Bush administration appears to have improved its record on disaster response, a series of poor budgeting and policy moves in the US Forest Service may have made the fires harder to fight, contributing to more than $1 billion in property damage and the loss of at least 7 lives. Shrinking budgets and an insistence on private contracting appear to have made it more difficult for local communities in the San Diego area to fight the wildfires in their earlier stages, allowing the flames to spread.
A review of Bush administration budget proposals by the Huffington Post showed that the flow of money from the US Forest Service to help state and local communities fight wildfires faced chronic cuts since President Bush was elected.
During Bush's first year in office, the Forest Service's State Fire Assistance program for wildland fire management was funded at approximately $56 million per year. But the President's budget proposal for 2008 only requests $35 million from Congress, an 18% cut from what it spent in the current year, already well below the earlier levels.
Assistance to volunteer firefighting forces increased to a level of about $12 million during 2007, but only after Congressional intervention. At first, the Forest Service had requested only $7.8 million. After the budget mushroomed to the higher level, the administration proposed a 38% cut for next year, reducing the budget to help volunteer firefighters to $8 million, less than the level it was funded at in 2001.
A senior Senate staffer who works on land management issues explained why the budget cuts hindered wildfire preparedness.
"When the National Fire Plan came out in 2000, a main emphasis was on local preparedness through a significant infusion of grants for more local firefighting equipment," the aide explained to the Huffington Post. "A significant amount of that money has disappeared as a result of the administration's budget policies. You can have lots of funding going into big federal accounts, but local fire departments get to the fire first, and they carry a lot of the load, particularly when fires are not burning on federal lands. From what I've heard in the news, there has been concern about the local fire departments' preparedness in the areas the fires have burned, and that is the situation those grants are targeted at."
Forest Service staff did not respond to requests for comment on why the budgets were cut.
In addition to the budget cuts, a significant change in policy across the Bush administration made it more difficult to call up federal Forest Service firefighters in crisis situations like the one that destroyed so many homes in southern California. The White House's insistence on the outsourcing of government services has been vigorously applied to the Forest Service. A lone, obscure sentence within the Office of Management and Budget's explanation of the Fiscal Year 2008 budget request for the Forest Service hints at the reasoning for this policy.
"Specifically, the Budget will reduce overhead, business management, and other indirect costs by one-third to improve efficiency and program delivery," the report stated.
The shift to outsourcing government work within the Forest Service has had a unique effect. Traditionally, almost every employee who worked within the Forest Service in even the lowliest of functions, was trained in firefighting and could be sent out to defeat the wildfires. But with more and more work in the Forest Service outsourced, and accelerating retirements among Forest Service personnel, there are fewer and fewer workers to call up and form a firefighting militia in a crisis. The heavy reliance on contractors has therefore made it harder to fight wildfires like those that burned in southern California's chaparral.
In other instances, the service's reliance on contractors extended to even the firefighters themselves. A 2004 Government Accountability Office report described the disastrous scenario that emerged during 2002's so-called "Biscuit Fire" in Oregon. In that setting, the Forest Service hired contractors who brought in untrained personnel who hindered the firefighting effort.
"Fire managers participating on the Biscuit Fire said that poorly trained and inexperienced contracted crews presented significant operational concerns," the report noted. "They cited examples of contracted crews that were unable to carry out planned firefighting operations."
Contractors also brought in non-English speaking crews, which adversely affected firefighting operations.
"There were instances where crew and squad bosses for contracted crews were unable to communicate in English with government supervisors, as required in the interagency crew agreement," the GAO noted. "The lack of fluency in English caused safety concerns and resulted in crews being assigned to far less technical tasks than planned."
The senate staffer told the Huffington Post that such instances showed how the principle of outsourcing Forest Service work ignored the practical effects of such policies.
"Sometimes contracting out to the private sector makes sense," the Senate aide pointed out. "But the administration pushes this ideology believing that it always makes sense, and they do not think about the big picture when it comes to fighting fires."
It's not clear precisely who forged the directives that cut Forest Service budgets and outsourced the agency's personnel in many settings. But some observers of the Forest Service's work had one culprit in mind: forestry industry-friendly Bush appointees within the Department of Agriculture office that sets the policy and budgeting for the Forest Service.
Mark E. Rey, who serves as the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the USDA, worked in senior positions at various timber industry trade groups for 20 years, such as the American Forest and Paper Association, the American Forest Resource Alliance, the National Forest Products Association, and the the American Paper Institute. He went on to serve as Chief of Staff to Senator Larry Craig during his time as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. President Bush appointed him to his current position in 2001. He helped establish the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative," which conservationists accuse of allowing logging companies to knock over stands of old growth forest with the justification that they are helping to control fires.
Moreover, his former counselor and current deputy, Melissa Simpson, also worked for retired Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis. During that time she played a key role in legislating the Healthy Forests Initiative in the form of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act. According to her bio at the USDA website, Simpson works on setting Forest Service policy.
One California-based conservation advocate said that the policy set by these officials contributed to the Forest Service's poor planning for wildfires like the ones that broke out in Southern California.
"From the point of view of scientists and firefighters, the policy we've got in place to deal with these fires is making them worse, on and on," said Scott Greacen, the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. "There are things we should be doing that we aren't doing, and it's not that we're not spending money. We need to be spending it differently. "
The USDA also did not respond to requests for comment on who was responsible for setting Forest Service policy.