Wildfires Raging Across the West

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Federal government sends in troops to fight wildfires while latest blazes enflame policy debate.

Troops Deployed to Fight the Fires
Military troops were summoned to fight Western wildfires, which have burned hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed buildings, forced evacuations, closed national forests and other lands, and led to emergency declarations.

In mid-August, more than 70 major fires were burning 992,000 acres in 11 Western states. The largest wildfires were in Idaho, Montana and California.

Five hundred Army troops from Fort Hood, Tex. and 500 Marines from Camp Pendleton in California were dispatched to fight fires in Idaho. Another 500 soldiers from Fort Hood were later sent to Montana. In all, some 20,000 civilian and military firefighters from 46 states and Canada and Mexico were on fire lines. The National Interagency Fire Center also was recruiting 80 firefighters from New Zealand and Australia.

President Clinton visited firefighters in Idaho and also took a helicopter tour. He directed federal officials to recommend ways to rehabilitate burned land and said he would release $150 million in emergency funds for firefighting.

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The government was spending at least $15 million daily to support the recent firefighting effort. The huge workload and fear that more wildfires are yet to come led to the unusual step of summoning troops. The military has not been asked to help firefighters in the West since 1996.

Since the spring, fires have burned more than 4 million acres in the West. It has been the worst fire season in 50 years, said Sylvia Baca, assistant secretary of the Interior.

The worst may be yet to come, however; the busiest time for wildfires in the West usually is in late August and early September.

In Montana, wildfires burned 300,000 acres, forced hundreds of evacuations, destroyed scores of homes, and resulted in the closing of more than 6 million acres of public and private lands. Gov. Marc Racicot encouraged people to pray for relief from the devastation.

In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in two east-central counties when four range fires sprang up. His declaration allowed National Guard helicopters to be used against the fires. States of emergency also were declared in Washington and Utah, allowing National Guard troops to be called up for firefighting duty. In Utah, there were 10 major fires covering more than 55,000 acres.

California’s biggest blaze grew to more than 70,000 acres in Sequoia National Forest but was about 90% contained. In Idaho, a fire on 26,700 acres threatened to cross the Salmon River.

N.M. Blazes Tied to Logging Limits
In New Mexico, where a controlled burn earlier this year in a national park turned into a wildfire that burned 47,000 acres and destroyed more than 400 homes, the state’s congressional delegation and study by a state university both blamed logging restrictions.

The study, prompted by the May fires in Los Alamos and conducted by New Mexico State University, concluded the catastrophic blazes were the result of federal policies and lawsuits by environmentalists that led to mismanagement of forest lands in the Western U.S.

The study blamed the fires on “restrictive forest practices by the U.S. Forest Service combined with aggressive endangered species litigation against logging” by environmental groups.

At a hearing in Albuquerque of the House subcommittee on forests and forest health, the New Mexico congressional delegation and witnesses agreed that restrictions on mechanical thinning in fire-prone national forests must be lifted.

Wildfires Enflame Debate on Policies
The wildfires burning out of control across the West ignited new debate over policies of managing federal lands.

Fire experts have warned for years that combustible material had accumulated in Western forests to dangerous levels.

“The Clinton administration didn’t cause these fires, but their policies have left the Forest Service underfunded and under prepared for this crisis,” said Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican.

Representatives of the forest products industry contend that the administration gave priority to environmental concerns, preventing officials from confronting the fire threat with emergency logging and other measures.

Frank Gladics, president of the Independent Forest Products Association, urged both political parties to reconsider federal management policies but added that “Mr. Gore’s band of preservationists…perpetuated this disaster on our forests and in our communities.”

The wildfires “are the result of government policy decisions that have backfired,” wrote Robert Nelson, a University of Maryland professor. Logging to remove excess wood “is at odds with Clinton administration policy,” he noted.