Tahoe fire districts wait for fed funds

TAHOE CITY, Calif. - A year after President Bush signed legislation intended to provide money to thin overstocked forests, members of fire districts around Lake Tahoe are questioning why they've received none.

To date, no fire districts in the Tahoe Basin have seen any sign of increased federal funding as a result of the act, officials told the Tahoe World.

"It doesn't mean that we're not going to get federal funding, we just don't know when any of it will come to us," said Ed Miller, president of the board of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.

Bush signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act in December 2003.

"This bill expedites the environmental review process so we can move forward more quickly on projects that restore forests to good health," President Bush said at the time.

"We don't want our intentions bogged down by regulations. We want to get moving," he said.

The law was intended to reduce the threat of devastating wildfire while supporting public participation in developing forest health projects such as thinning, chipping and fuel reduction.

Last spring, all the fire districts in the Tahoe Basin gathered for a conference to create a first-ever, basin-wide community fire protection plan. They spent time and money making plans which were going to be partially funded by the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

"A lot of districts hoped to fund defensible-space programs, fuels reduction and be able to purchase chippers and the staff to operate them," Miller told the Tahoe World. "But that funding never came."

The federal legislation, which originally allocated up to $760 million for fire protection, was created as a response to the large, catastrophic fires affecting millions of acres of forest land.

The Tahoe Basin is one of the areas most at risk for wildfire in the western United States.

"Our forests are way too thick and too crowded, partially due to 50 to 60 years of not cutting down a single tree," Meeks Bay Fire Protection Chief John Pang said.

In order to implement programs to create healthier forests, Pang said they'll need more help than they're currently receiving.

"We're still looking and searching for money, but none of us have the kind of money we need - we're talking millions and millions of dollars," he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, since 2000 federal, state and private funding for hazardous fuels reduction has tripled to $546 million and federal dollars for firefighting has increased by 55 percent.

Little of that excess spending, however, is showing up locally.

At the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, its defensible space programs are funded by state and federal grants and in-kind contributions.

Although Healthy Forest funding wasn't worked into the budget, Bryce Keller, division chief for North Tahoe Fire Protection District, said they hoped to use the federal money to fund a growing list of 31 defensible space projects on private and state land.

"We have prioritized the projects from high to low," he said. "We may never get to the low priorities, but if we don't get the Healthy Forest money, we won't get to any of the projects."

Keller said they have maintained and even slightly expanded their defensible space programs this year, but their grants will run out at the end of 2005 and federal funding would be a significant help.

"The Healthy Forest initiative hasn't been helpful yet, but I believe it's good in concept. It will make funding available and get fuels reduction done," he said.

Rex Norman, public affairs officer for the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said that although he doesn't know when federal funding will arrive, he believes that the Tahoe Basin should be one of the first areas in the country to receive it.

"As far as I know, we're way ahead of other areas in our community fire plans," Norman said. "But it's hard to say what Congress is going to do."

And although the law authorized more than $700 million for fire protection, Norman said there's no telling how much of that will actually be appropriated.

Keller said he wasn't surprised that the legislation hasn't been felt on the ground yet.

"It's typical for these types of timelines to get elongated," he said. "But of course we're anxious to get started. The sooner, the better."


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