by Joe Garafoli, San Francisco Chronicle
As the Rim Fire continues to roar in and around Yosemite National Park, a debate is buzzing over how much political gridlock in Washington is affecting the ability to prevent and fight wildfires across California and beyond.
Some elected officials, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are blaming the federal budget sequestration - the offspring of a congressional deal to trim the deficit with 5 percent, across-the-board cuts to all federal programs except for a few, including Social Security, veterans' benefits, food stamps and Medicaid.
The U.S. Forest Service said the automatic cuts meant it was unable to hire 500 firefighters or buy 50 to 75 new engines and two water-carrying aircraft.
Fire preventionIt also meant not clearing brush and performing other fire-prevention actions on 200,000 acres across the country. In California, 92,968 acres are identified for fire prevention this year - roughly 17,000 fewer acres than the year before, according to Forest Service officials.
At the Department of the Interior, it has meant hiring 100 fewer seasonal firefighters nationally.
So far, 3.6 million acres have burned across the country, a pace that could top the 5.9 million acres on average that have burned over the past decade.
With California experiencing its driest year on record, more fire battles are looming.
"The firefighting resources are stretched pretty thin," said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents more than 110,000 federal workers in 37 agencies, including the Forest Service.
Dougan, a native Californian, spent 31 years at the Forest Service, including time fighting fires in his home state.
"We need our politicians to get back to Washington and do their work and get more money where it is needed to fight these fires," Dougan said...
The Forest Service exhausted its fire suppression budget this month, forcing it to borrow $600 million from its other departments. It is the sixth time in the past decade that the agency has been forced to make such an intra-budget transfer.
If it continues to spend $100 million a week fighting fires, Dougan said, the agency could have to reconfigure its budget again in mid-September - meaning more cuts to popular Forest Service programs.
Many Americans might soon start to see the effects of that budget transfer when they show up at national parks. Fewer federal dollars could mean not fixing a dilapidated fire pit at a park site or deferring maintenance on toilets or not repairing trails.
Toilets...can't they just make like a bear? Why travel miles to get to the woods and then require some namby-pamby, urbanized toilet? You can't graze livestock, drill for oil and gas, mine or cut timber in the forest anymore, but by damn you can still take a shit there. I think.
Look, I'll be the first one to say the 5% across the board cuts were because Congress was chicken hearted. First, it wasn't enough. Second, Congress should prioritize the programs and fund or not fund them accordingly. In this instance they are forcing the Forest Service to do the prioritizing for them.
On the other hand the sequester is better than no cuts at all. And look how the Forest Service has reacted to these severe economic and budgetary times. Their FY 14 budget request asks for increases in...research and land acquisition. They can't manage what they have but they want more.
Sorry, but I couldn't identify their budget for toilet maintenance.