By REBECCA BOONE
Associated Press Writer
BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Wildfires in the lower 48 states have burned
a record number of acres this year, and with the scorched land
comes a record bill, a federal official said Tuesday.
The U.S. Forest Service's firefighting efforts for fiscal year
2006, which ended Sept. 30, cost more than $1.5 billion, at least
$100 million over budget, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department
undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.
To cover the overage, money was transferred from other programs
that had surpluses, including a reforestation program, said Kent
Connaughton, a veteran Forest Service official now also serving as
the agency's comptroller.
The fiscal 2006 tab compares with $690 million spent out of a
nearly $1.2 billion budget in 2005 and $726 million spent out of a
$959 million budget in 2004, Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron
said. Both the 2004 and 2005 fire seasons were mild compared with
the current fire season, he said.
This year, for the first time, the Forest Service had a
comptroller overseeing expenses, and fires that reached certain
expense levels automatically triggered an independent review, Rey
said.
"We're getting better results in terms of cost, as a
consequence of making cost efficiency and cost containment
something that we spend a lot of time on," he said. "There's a
three-way tension: The safety of firefighters, protecting homes and
property and not spending a gazillion dollars. I think we've made
some strides."
The wildfire season is not over yet, but so far 9.93 million
acres have burned in the Lower 48, Rey said. That's the most acres
burned since at least 1960, when the Boise-based National
Interagency Fire Center began keeping reliable records. The
previous record was in 2005, when more than 8.6 million acres
burned. The average of the past 10 years has been 4.9 million
acres.
This fire season was exacerbated by seven large-scale dry
lightning storms, more than double the number normally seen, Rey
said. Such storms can ignite several thousand small fires, he said,
forcing crews to scramble to make sure all are extinguished.
"Even if you lose one or two, then you've got a larger fire.
Eighty-five percent of the money we spend fighting fires is
consumed by the less than 2 percent of fires that escape initial
attack," he said. "So if you have more dry lightning events,
you're going to have more escapes, and when you have more escapes,
you're probably going to spend more money."
Much of that money goes to structure protection. So far this
year, 674 homes - primary residences, not vacation houses - have
burned in wildfires, Rey said. That's a drop from 2002, when
roughly 2,000 homes burned, and 2003, when about 3,000 burned.
That indicates property owners and federal and state entities
are making progress in reducing fuels around homes and developing
wildland protection plans, he said.
The Forest Service is working to tighten agreements with states
over who pays firefighting costs. Cost-sharing plans currently vary
from state to state, Rey said, and the agency is often left arguing
over the cost long after a fire's been extinguished.
"California is well-defined, and Arizona needs some tying down.
Idaho is kind of in the middle of the pack," Rey said. "We're
arguing in Oregon over a fire last year and we'll probably have a
vigorous discussion over the Tripod Complex fire in Washington."
The agency may also change how it deploys firefighting aircraft,
he said. Fixed-wing planes are faster, and will continue to be used
when speed is important, and heavy air tankers have proven
cost-effective for initial attacks. But he said helicopters,
although they cost more per hour, can often make more runs and
carry more water overall to fires.
The Forest Service hopes to save money in the future by using a
new software program that will enable fire managers and budgeters
to better predict the course large fires will take, Connaughton
said. The agency expects to begin using the new software sometime
in the next 24 months.
"These kinds of models, along with the other improvements, I
think are going to pay off for us," Connaughton said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)