San Diego Union Tribune

May 6, 2004

Federal fire-prevention money to move faster, Feinstein says


WASHINGTON A Bush administration official yesterday warned Congress that it could be a dozen years before new money and policies from Washington significantly curb the types of wildfires that raged through Southern California last October.

But at least some of the money will be flowing faster. The Department of Agriculture announced that it will waive matching fund requirements for local governments to obtain federal fire prevention money, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Feinstein had said earlier that money targeted for dead-tree removal in San Diego County and other Southern California counties was being delayed in part because the counties were required to match a portion of the federal grants to receive them.

As fires continued to burn in Southern California, a House subcommittee heard testimony from lawmakers and fire officials, who sparred over whether the White House and Congress have done enough or moved quickly enough to help prevent Western wildfires.

Mark Rey, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the House Government Reform subcommittee that it would take time for action in Washington to have a broad impact in Southern California.

"I think there are some people who believe that with the passage of congressional legislation last year, we would end all forest fires," Rey said, adding that it could take 10 to 12 years "to resolve a problem that's been over 100 years in the making."

Bill McCammon, president of the California Fire Chiefs Association, said local governments are discouraged from seeking federal money because the amounts available are inadequate and often come with many rules.

For instance, he said, some money can be spent only on federal land unless local officials go through a complicated process to use it elsewhere.

"Funding from the federal government for these types of programs is analogous to . . . rain that falls from the sky but evaporates before it hits the ground," McCammon said.

Rey countered that Washington is spending $67 million this year on four projects in California designed to prevent wildfires.

"I've been in Washington a long time, but I would have to tell you that if $67 million rained down out of the sky on me, I would feel the moisture," he said.

After the hearing, Feinstein said she was told that the Department of Agriculture will waive the requirements for local matching funds for grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and reduce the matching fund requirement for U.S. Forest Service grants.