Prevention Would Aid Firefighting

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- A study of six major wildfires in 2001 found that the federal government could save money by fighting forest fires more effectively, but could save much more by thinning forests and taking other preventative measures.

The yearlong study by the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent, nonprofit research organization chartered by Congress, comes after a 2002 wildfire season in which federal agencies spent $1.4 billion to fight fires that burned 6.7 million acres.

``Fire suppression is more than a one-year, single-incident proposition,'' said Phoenix city manager Frank Fairbanks, chairman of the panel that produced the study. ``Unless the amount of hazardous fuels can be reduced and communities made fire-resistant, wildfire will continue to grow larger, more intense and damaging, and even more costly to fight.''

The study recommends creating a process to set national priorities for federal grants to reduce fire dangers and better coordinating federal, state and local efforts.

Similar conclusions were reached by a General Accounting Office report for Congress last February. It found that the method for doling out $796 million in federal funds to help states reduce the risk of wildfire to communities is such a mess it makes things worse.

After remaining relatively flat in the 1970s and 1980s, firefighting costs have grown steadily since the mid-1990s, hitting $1.1 billion in 2000 and $1.4 billion in 2002.

Many scientists have blamed the increasing size and intensity of fires on a century of misguided efforts to put out all fires instead of letting some burn away fuel. Since the 1990s, logging on national forests has sharply decreased to protect fish and wildlife habitats.

President Bush has called for increased logging on federal lands to thin dense forests so they are less likely to burn out of control when they ignite.

Many environmentalists agree that some thinning is necessary, but contend that the Bush proposal is largely an excuse to expand logging and help the timber industry.