West burns while politicians fiddle

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The West burns while Washington fiddles.

Of all the ways the federal government spends our tax money -- including a $10 million increase on Wednesday for the National Endowment for the Arts -- the most important must be for the protection of its citizens.

We thought that had been pretty well agreed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And we can't argue with anti-terrorism being a top priority.

But it apparently has escaped notice by a good number of Eastern legislators (and the Bush White House) that thousands of residents of Western states are in danger -- from wildfires, almost entirely on federal land.

It's the middle of July, in many years about the time when we start thinking about serious fires in the nation's forests, and already the Forest Service has used up its $321 million firefighting budget.

The White House and members of the Senate have been "negotiating" for more than a week over how much more money to appropriate. The message, so far, has been for the Interior Department to find the money elsewhere in its budget.

We believe White House official Nancy Dorn when she promises "No fires will go unfought this season," but such comments only serve to trivialize the severity of the danger in the West.

It is not whether fires will be fought; the question is how quickly, and with what resources.

Living with wildfire, we know just how quickly a seemingly benign lightning strike can turn into a life- and property-threatening inferno. How much will be lost in order to save someone's federal budget?

Even more serious, however, is how the federal government asks firefighters to put their own lives on the line with second-hand, second-rate equipment.

To know where their priority lies, Washington politicians need only watch one time the horrifying image of a 50-year-old C-130A tanker plane folding up like a balsa-wood toy and killing its three-man crew as they fought the Walker fire last month.


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