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HOUSE RESOURCES COMMITTEE OKs WILDFIRE BILL

MAY 01 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  The House Resources Committee yesterday approved a wildfire prevention bill that would clear the way for aggressive thinning on 20 million acres of national forests by streamlining public appeals of proposals for reducing fire hazards. Republicans picked up the support of four Democrats on the 32-17 vote on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

"I am pleased with the outcome," said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon co-author of the bill. "To get a bipartisan bill through this committee on a controversial issue is an accomplishment."

The bill was authored by Walden and Rep. Scott McInnis, as well as House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte. The bill has over 70 bipartisan cosponsors.

The Statesman-Journal reported that several environmental groups oppose the bill. They say the legislation will relax environmental safeguards, and they cite provisions that would make it tougher to stop projects once they have begun. For example, the legislation would not require automatic administrative delays for projects under appeal.

The bill would require that federal land managers perform a full environmental analysis only on the proposed forest management action, and not on a litany of additional alternatives to the proposed action. If, after engaging its own scientists and the public, land managers decide to thin and then control-burn 1,000 acres of at-risk lands, a full environmental analysis and documentation of the impacts of that project would be required, including any potential effects on water quality and wildlife. However, the agency would not be required to perform time-consuming analysis and documentation on alternatives that consider the impacts of the treatment on, for example, 10 acres or 10,000 acres, as is currently the case.

The committee rejected several Democratic amendments, including a substitute proposal by Reps. George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon. They tried last year to forge a compromise wildfire bill, but Congress reached a stalemate and adjourned without taking action. The McInnis-Walden bill goes further than the DeFazio-Miller bill in changing the judicial review process for appeals. It also eases the requirement for environmental studies for each proposed project and includes a new program to target beetle and insect infestation.

"The proliferation of catastrophic wildfire and massive insect and disease outbreaks is, in my estimation, the single largest and most daunting challenge facing our natural resource managers today," said McInnis. "It's a wildland epidemic that is going to continue to despoil our air, water, and wildlife unless and until policy makers chart a decisive new course. This bill sets that course in a thoughtful, deliberative and balanced way."


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ILLINOIS BRUSHFIRE CONTAINED

APRIL 30 -- BEACH PARK, IL:  Firefighters have a 450-acre brushfire just south of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line under control; it started in the Illinois Beach State Park north of Chicago on Sunday night, according to Beach Park Fire Lt. Robert Wronski. WISN-TV reported that firefighters from about 30 departments worked on the fire.

ABC-7 out of Chicago reported yesterday that thick black smoke from the fire could be seen for miles. More than 120 firefighters worked on the fire; it got no closer than 200 yards to any homes, but it did interrupt Metra train service for a while Monday morning.

The nature preserve where the fire started, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, was thick with cattails and other vegetation near the south end of the park. The preserve is south of the park's lodge and more than a mile from the Zion nuclear power plant, according to the Kane County Chronicle.

The fire burned slowly at first because there was little wind, but sometime around midnight, a stiff breeze started in off Lake Michigan. By sunrise, the fire had spread west across the park, approaching the Metra Union Pacific North Line between Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Several homes are west of the tracks.

"We were able to use the Metra tracks as a firebreak," Wronski said. By 11:30 a.m., the fire was contained, and most of the firefighters were sent back to their stations by 1:30 p.m. Wronski said it was the largest brushfire his department has fought in at least five years.

"This was a very big one," said Ron Wojnarowski, deputy chief of the Beach Park Fire Department. Firefighters set backburns to keep the fire from spreading to homes outside the park and nearby Metra train tracks. The park's lodge and other facilities remained open during the fire.

"It burned some of the cattails and brush out of the site, so we may see some ecological advantage to it," said Tim Schweizer, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Illinois Beach"This is about the best thing that can happen as far as the environment is concerned with burning and the regrowth that's been going on for thousands of years," said Wronski.

The Daily Herald reported that the fire burned Black Oak savanna, an area of scattered trees with grasses, cattails, and swampy areas. "There was a wall of fire probably a half-mile long that reached elevations of 30, 40, or 50 feet through those cattails," said Bob Grosso, park superintendent. About a third of the park is burned by design every year in controlled fires, and the area surrounding Monday's fire was burned back last fall. Monday's fire site was scheduled to have been burned earlier this month, but it was delayed because of west winds.

"We try to accommodate the local population and not smoke them out," Grosso said. Illinois Beach was created by the titanic forces of glacial advance and retreat and the steady winds that blew across Lake Michigan. The park has dunes and swales with sprawling marshes, oak forests, and 81 threatened and endangered species, mostly plants. "Most of them are fire-dependent," explained Grosso. Fire keeps out invasive plants and the ash acts as a fertilizer. Park wildlife includes deer, possums, coyotes, and rabbits. More than 650 species of plants have been recorded in the dunes area alone, including dozens of wildflowers. Prickly pear cactus thrives in the dry areas, and the wet prairies are carpeted with grasses and sedges. Marshes in the swales support dense stands of cattail, bluejoint grass, prairie cordgrass, reed grass, big bluestem, and sedges.

The extremely dry conditions contributed to not only this brushfire but numerous others across the area. Since September of last year, rainfall across Chicagoland has been well below normal for every single month. The total rainfall deficit now stands at more than 10 inches. With dry conditions expected to continue for at least the next few days, brushfires will probably continue to be a problem. "It's been a bad spring for brushfires," Wronski said. "Every time we have a few nice days in a row like this, we all cringe because we know we're going to get a fire like this."

Northern Illinois is in a moderate to severe drought, nearly 5 inches behind the normal amount of precipitation as of January 1. A red flag warning was issued Sunday for Indiana Dunes because of low ground moisture and humidity. The situation has resulted in an increase in both the number and size of fires this season, according to Buffalo Grove Fire Chief Tim Sashko, who heads the Lake County Fire Chiefs Association.

"Our percentages are up substantially -- the numbers and the size of them," said Sashko. "It hasn't been just these spot fires. These things are turning into major events that go for hours on end and require a lot of equipment."


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NATIONAL FORESTS "HONEYCOMBED" WITH EXPLOSIVES

APRIL 29 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Storehouses containing military-grade ordnance on National Forest lands pose a threat if seized by terrorists, federal investigators warn in a recent report. The Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General says that cached weapons magazines -- which the Forest Service uses for clearing boulders or doing avalanche control -- appear secure, but the agency doesn't know the exact number and location of the storehouses. Required inspections aren't performed, and access isn't properly controlled.

The report says about half the ordnance magazines are controlled by ski resorts leasing Forest Service land. According to a report by the Sacramento Bee, at least 335 magazines have been identified nationwide.

"They're used a fair amount in ski areas," said Matt Mathes, media relations specialist with the USFS. "And we use explosives for clearing boulders when we're clearing trails."

At the Sierra Summit ski resort on the Sierra National Forest, operators deploy "a very small amount" of explosives for knocking down potential avalanche sites. Resort general manager Brian Bressel said they strictly limit access to the material. "Our magazine is checked two to three times a day by security, looking for footprints, graffiti, and that sort of thing," Bressel said.

He said the 1999 theft of several hundred pounds of dynamite, blasting caps, and other explosives from an unguarded police bunker in eastern Fresno County may have prompted the OIG investigation. The report blacks out, as a security precaution, the number of magazines and types of explosives located in specific regions.

The Army loans artillery weapons to the Forest Service, which in turn loans them to the ski resorts. Similarly, the Army sells old artillery shells to the Forest Service, which sells them to resorts. Investigators visited 36 of the known ordnance magazines, and sometimes they didn't find what they expected. Records at one magazine indicated a cache of 6,000 feet of detonating cord, but investigators found only 4,000 feet. At another site, records showed 12 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil but investigators found just 4 pounds.

The Forest Service accepted the investigators' recommendations and agreed to make changes, including working with ski resort operators to maintain tighter control over keys and to initiate more consistent background checks.

"We're going to comply with everything they asked for," Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said. The OIG report, dated 01/17/2003, is called "Review of Security over Explosives/Munitions Magazines Located within the National Forest System." The (605k) report is online in PDF format.


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FIRE REHAB WORK ON THE LOLO SHUT DOWN

APRIL 29 -- MISSOULA, MT:  The Lolo National Forest yesterday shut down all work -- including logging, road repair, and tree planting -- on thousands of acres burned during the 2000 wildfire season, on orders of a judge. Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin said she will ask the judge to clarify the order that shut operations down at the request of two environmental groups.

"We have to shut down all activities authorized under the record of decision," said Austin. "All work stops. But there will be a lot of conversation between our attorneys and the plaintiffs' attorneys and the judge over the next week."

Also yet to come, according to a report by the Missoulian, is U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's full opinion, which was not attached to the order signed last Friday. Nine timber sales were planned in the burned areas on the Lolo National Forest. Loggers already were at work on two sales, and Lolo staff were negotiating with contractors for this summer's road and forest restoration projects.

Tree seedlings were ready for planting on 1,000 acres. "We already have the trees," Austin said. "If we can't plant them, they go to waste."

Spokesmen for the two environmental groups that brought the lawsuit -- Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club -- said they intend to force the Forest Service to follow the law. "We want to see the good work go forward," said Bob Clark, a conservation organizer at the Sierra Club's Missoula office. "We don't want to throw away the baby with the bath water. We just want new bath water."

The post-burn project work included the removal of 287 miles of roads, upgrading or removal of 108 culverts, reclamation of three mines, weed control along 509 miles of backcountry roads and the "decommissioning" of 224 miles of poorly maintained forest roads. And the logging would have paid for some of the road restoration and removal.


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BRUSHFIRE BURNS AT EDGE OF CLEVELAND

APRIL 28 -- MENTOR, OH:  Firefighters and all-emergency crews are battling a large brushfire in the Headlands area of Cleveland this afternoon, and officials are investigating its cause. Roads have been closed in the Headlands, according to a WKYC-TV broadcast.

Mentor Marsh fire photo courtesy of WKYCThe fire, burning through salt marsh along Lake Erie, is putting up a huge plume of smoke visible from miles away (and on WKYC's radar loop), and WKYC had reports of ash falling on areas nearly ten miles from the fire.

Twenty-six fire departments from around Ohio were working on the fire; marsh fires in the area are not unusual, but this one is especially large and burning hot. One resident said she hadn't seen a fire like this one for 15 years.

The fire's burning along a 2-mile stretch of marshland near the Mentor Marsh State Nature Reserve, about 700 acres of emergent wetland that was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1966. It's the largest natural reed-growing marsh in Ohio. The WPBF Channel reported that the smoke plume was over 3,000 feet, and that traffic was backed up on Interstate 90 and state Route 2 for miles, all the way into Cuyahoga County.

FOXnews reported that the fire took off just before 2 p.m. and burned about 50 acres of tall grass in the first two hours. Bob Archer, director of the Lake County Emergency Management Agency, said brushfires occur frequently in the marsh during dry springs, but that it had been a number of years since they'd had something this large.

The Coast Guard was monitoring the situation along the Headlands. Up to a dozen homes are threatened, and people were urged to avoid the area; local winds were reported at 14-20 mph.

CNN reported that residents used garden hoses and leaf blowers to try to keep back the fire. The smoke was dense black from 6-foot-tall weeds that contain a hydrocarbon, according to Dale Lewis, a battalion chief with the Mentor Fire Department. By 7 p.m. EDT, containment was estimated at 80 percent; firefighters will continue to patrol the area overnight. The evening broadcast from WKYC said the fire was about 200 acres and firefighters had seen flamelengths of up to 50 feet.


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FLORIDA WILDFIRE STARTED BY KIDS WITH FIREWORKS

APRIL 28 -- NORTH PORT, FL:  Children playing with fireworks started Wednesday's 130-acre wildfire that shut down Interstate 75 for more than two hours, according to a report by the Herald-Tribune.

"Our initial investigation into Wednesday's fire in North Port has revealed that the fire was caused by juveniles playing with fireworks," said Ty Alexander of the Florida Division of Forestry (DOF). Officials did not release the names of the children. Initial estimates say suppression costs ran about $9,000; under a state policy adopted in 1999, parents of children who start wildfires can be charged for the cost. Seven tractor rigs and about 50 other firefighters worked on the fire; residents in a two-block area were evacuated in case the fire jumped the interstate, but firefighters were able to stop it at the roadway.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that state forestry officials are drawing parallels between this past rainy winter and a similar one in 1998, but they don't expect this summer to be as bad as the half-million-acre season of 1998. Drought conditions in much of the state were eased by the El Niño weather phenomenon this winter, which brought higher rainfall totals. But unlike in 1998, El Niño apparently is not being followed by La Niña -- a drought-causing system marked by hot, dry air that leads to ideal conditions for wildfires.

The Herald-Tribune called last week's fire a wake-up call for Florida residents, and said they got more serious about wildfires after the season of 1998. Fires that year destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes and businesses, forced the evacuation of 110,000 residents, and took $100 million in tax dollars to extinguish.

Lightning and careless children account for a majority of the wildfires in southwest Florida each year, but a woodland arsonist that investigators have nicknamed "Sparky" also has kept wildland firefighters busy. In April 2001, firefighters blamed Sparky for as many as 12 wildfires that destroyed two homes, damaged at least 22 others, and torched 16 vehicles on the Charlotte-Sarasota county line. Sparky may be one person, they say, or a group of people who may or may not know each other, but forest rangers refer to him in the singular, and they recognize his work.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that last week's red flag alert was issued because a trough of cooler, dry air moved over central Florida. Bob Wimmer, a National Weather Service forecaster, said the warning was "very temporary." And it was lifted later the same day.

Through Saturday, 951 fires this year had burned nearly 8,900 acres across the state. There were 3,065 wildfires in Florida last year, burning 56,835 acres -- the third-lowest total statewide since 1983. In 1998, 506,970 acres burned. Scott Goodrick, a research meteorologist for the Forest Service, described the 1998 fires as a "very rare event."

Florida's wildfire season normally runs from December through June.


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CHIEF TO VISIT WALLOWA COUNTY

APRIL 27 -- ENTERPRISE, OR:  U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth is coming to northeast Oregon's Wallowa County next month to see how the agency is working with local organizations on forest health projects. His tour is scheduled for May 29-30 and he'll review the Buck Pilot Project near Sled Springs, according to a report by the Wallowa County Chieftain.

"He is focusing on seeing how collaboration works and doesn't work," said Diane Snyder, director of Wallowa Resources, an Enterprise-based organization that promotes community-based forestry. Bosworth will be briefed on the fuels reduction program on Mount Howard and in the Wallowa Lake basin.

The Buck Pilot Project north of Enterprise is an example of the projects Wallowa Resources and others want the Forest Service to use more often, with dual goals of improving the environment and boosting local economies. Originally planned as a timber sale, it was modified to address soil compaction, fire prevention, and fish and wildlife.


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SHASTA COUNTY TAKING INPUT ON FIRE FUNDING

APRIL 26 -- REDDING, CA:  Fire safety, emergency response, and noxious weed control are at the center of Shasta County's plan to distribute $583,796 in federal timber-related funds. The county starts a 45-day comment period Monday on a plan to give $174,472 to the Fire Department, $140,667 to the Western Shasta Resource Conservation District, and $13,900 to Agriculture Commissioner Mary Pfeiffer.

The Redding Record-Searchlight reports that the money would pay for new rescue vehicles for the Hat Creek, Old Station, and Platina fire companies, a fire education trailer for fairs and other events, and a survey of non-native plant species.

"Sixty to 70 percent of our calls are rescue calls," said Fire Warden Duane Fry, whose department would get the rescue vehicles. "The county has never been funding those, and a lot of those have been purchased by the volunteers ... that was one of our prioritized needs."

About $3.6 million a year comes to Shasta County from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which reimburses local governments for revenue losses from declining timber sales on federal lands. Some of the money can be used to reimburse county departments for expenses incurred on federal lands or for fire education programs. These expenditures are referred to as Title III programs. The three rescue vehicles would continue the Fire Department's goal of replacing its 19 rescues countywide. Money over the last two years paid for new vehicles for the Lakehead, Shingletown, Bella Vista, Jones Valley, Palo Cedro, and Montgomery Creek fire companies.

The fire education trailer would include maps of areas that have been burned by wildfires, maps of where fuelbreaks are, and examples of houses that are safe or unsafe from wildfires. The money would also pay for a part-time staff to coordinate agencies' fuels reduction efforts. Comments on this year's Title III projects can be sent to the Shasta County Department of Public Works, 1855 Placer St., Redding, California 96001.


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SULA STATE FOREST VOLUNTEER TREE-PLANTING TOMORROW

APRIL 25 -- MISSOULA, MT:  Members of the Exchange Club of Missoula will plant more than 5,000 seedlings tomorrow in burned areas of the Sula State Forest south of Darby. The National Exchange Club collected donations during the 2000 fire season from its 120 clubs nationwide, because they knew help would be needed.

The Missoulian reported that 87 percent of the Sula State Forest's 15,000 acres burned in the fires. The seedlings to be planted include Engelmann spruce and were produced by the state nursery in Missoula. Another 6,000 seedlings will be planted next spring.

About 50 volunteers will join in the tree planting. For more information, check them out online at missoulaexchangeclub.org or email jamcpa@montana.com or write the Exchange Club of Missoula, P.O. Box 8926, Missoula, Montana 59807.


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VOLUNTEERS CONVERGE ON GLENWOOD SPRINGS FOR FIRE RESTORATION

APRIL 24 -- GLENWOOD SPRINGS, CO:   A large-scale volunteer wildfire rehab project is scheduled for Saturday in Glenwood Springs, according to a report by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers Executive Director David Hamilton said yesterday he's already signed up about three times as many area residents for the project than for other similar efforts.

South Canyon monument with Coal Seam Fire in background"It will come down to the weather, too," Hamilton said. "But I'm worried we might be overwhelmed with people who just show up Saturday morning and we won't have enough equipment or food."

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, a statewide nonprofit group that does maintenance and enhancement projects on public lands, said the goal is 350 volunteers.

The Coal Seam Fire took off on June 8, 2002 and burned more than 12,000 acres; nearly 700 firefighters, along with 74 engines, 15 aircraft, and 7 dozers worked to contain the fire. One of the hardest hit areas was the City of Glenwood Springs, where flames came within feet of the town's municipal buildings. VOC is partnering with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the City of Glenwood Springs, Colorado State Forest Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service on the fire restoration project; volunteers will plant hundreds of trees within the city and nearby South Canyon.

A key funding source is ReForest Colorado, founded as a partnership between Shell Oil Company and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to solicit private donations for forest rehab.

To volunteer, call Roaring Fork Outdoors Volunteers at (970)927-8241.


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ENVIROS NOT THE ONLY APPEALERS

APRIL 24 -- FLAGSTAFF, AZ:   Claims by the Bush administration and Arizona politicians that environmental groups are the main culprits in blocking fuels reduction projects are overblown, according to a team of Northern Arizona University researchers. Their study suggests that a broad array of individuals and organizations regularly appeal -- and thus delay -- projects proposed by the Forest Service, and those who appeal include ranchers, business owners, private citizens, and environmental interests.

The Arizona Republic reported that the researchers didn't have enough information for conclusions on how the appeals process affects forest management. Such conclusions may not be possible under the current system, team members say.

"In an ideal world, policy is based on information," said Jacqueline Vaughn, an NAU political science professor and one of the researchers. "Just from what we have learned from the first phase of the study, the information is not there or it's conflicting." Their study was released on the eve of congressional hearings about changes to the Forest Service appeals process. After last summer's wildfires, many politicians blamed environmental groups for using appeals to sideline forest thinning projects.

Vaughn said her team's study of more than 3,000 appeals found that:

• Of the 3,635 Forest Service appeals filed nationwide from Jan. 1, 1997, through Sept. 30, 2002, one-third were from individuals. many of the individuals were ranch owners appealing projects that affected grazing allotments.

• Non-profit environmental groups filed slightly less than one-third of the appeals, but those groups were more active than almost anyone else. Together, private citizens and the 17 most-active environmental groups accounted for more than half the appeals.

• The most active group was the Forest Guardians, which filed 381 appeals, followed by the Ecology Center, with 236 appeals. In Arizona, the Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity were the most active.

Wally Covington, director of NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute, said the team will examine separate cases to see whether the appeals have delayed projects and, if so, by how much.


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FOREST SERVICE CHIEF:  FOCUS ON FUELS

APRIL 23 -- SAN FRANCISCO, CA:  Logging and road-building get a lot of attention, but the real threats to the nation's forests are fire and invasive species, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said yesterday.

"The current debate about the administration and management of America's national forests ... I think it's about the wrong issues," he said.

He says the four major threats are overgrown forests, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and unmanaged recreation. According to an AP story in the Olympian, other issues that get a lot of attention are just "diversions" promulgated by interest groups. He says those include logging, debates on the "poster children" of endangered species rather than habitat as a whole, road-building, and livestock grazing on public land.

Bosworth chose Earth Day and the environmentalist stronghold of the San Francisco Bay area to make his pitch. He spoke first at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and later at the University of California in Berkeley.

"This is the administration attempting to use Earth Day in a political way to draw attention away from their plans to increase logging and oil and gas development in our national forests, and I think it is shameless," said Dan Smuts of The Wilderness Society.

Bosworth referred to "the bogus debate over logging" and said there's a misperception that the Forest Service is eagerly cutting down trees to make money. He said the annual volume of timber cut in the U.S. has dropped from 12 billion board feet two decades ago to 2 billion board feet.

Phil Aune of the California Forestry Association said Bosworth had it exactly right on the logging issue. "I think it's absolutely on target on the concern that the greatest threat is catastrophic wildfire and those kind of issues," he said.

Bosworth said that as a 37-year veteran of the Forest Service, he's not playing partisan politics. "What I am focusing on is what I think are the problems that are out there in the national forests and the problems I believe that the American people are going to be faced with for the next 20 years," he said.


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REPUBLICANS PUSH WILDFIRE BILL

APRIL 22 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Republicans will try to muscle a bill to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health through a congressional panel next week. The decision to take up the Republican bill reveals that Democrats and Republicans have been unable to salvage an agreement that died at the end of the last Congress.

"It's our bill, but we're working with anyone who is interested in a bipartisan solution," said Blair Jones with Rep. Scott McInnis' staff from Colorado.

The Casper Star-Tribune reported that Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo of California and Rep. McInnis decided to begin work on the bill before holding hearings on the proposal and a Democratic alternative drafted by Reps. George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon. That's angered some Democrats and environmental organizations. Jones defended the decision.

"Probably no other issue in the Resources Committee has received more oversight, scrutiny and analysis over the last year than the wildfire and forest health issue," said Jones. "At some point we have to break this endless cycle of hand wringing and legislative dawdling and roll up our sleeves and get to work on solutions -- and for Mr. McInnis that time is now."

Reps. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming and Denny Rehberg of Montana are members of the committee and helped McInnis draft his bill.

Last year McInnis pushed for provisions to streamline the approval process for fuels reduction projects and to limit the lawsuits that environmental groups can file. Under the bill, federal agencies would have been required to develop only one proposal for treating a fire-prone national forest. Agencies often consider three to five alternatives.

"What we're aiming for is more power to the people in the fields, while limiting judicial activism," said Rehberg. "The two things we need to suppress are wildfires in the courts and litigious ambitions in the courts."

The bill that Miller and DeFazio have introduced this year would require 75 percent of new federal funding to be used to treat lands within a half-mile of a community. It also would limit the streamlined review process to projects within a half-mile of communities. Miller and DeFazio's bill also would provide $500 million in grants to states, tribes, local fire districts, and homeowners' associations.


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MINNESOTA EXPECTING ANOTHER BUSY WEEK

APRIL 18 -- GRAND MARAIS, MN:  After scrambling on dozens of fires last week, Minnesota firefighters are expecting another busy week as temperatures continue above normal and breezes blow from the south. As of April 15, 60 fires had burned 1,700 acres under Minnesota Department of Natural Resources jurisdiction. The Cook County News-Herald reported that fire staff in many areas worked well into the night trying to extinguish fires, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported 3,300 acres burned in 67 fires. Conditions this year are well ahead of the 10-year averages for both number of fires and acres burned.

"Fires are burning hot and with extreme fire behavior," said Ron Stoffel, Wildfire Suppression Supervisor. "This is a result of drought conditions that have persisted most of the winter and so far this spring."

A second P3 Orion airtanker arrived in Minnesota recently; it joins two CL-215s and another P3 already in the state. One SEAT and several helicopters are also available, and National Guard helicopters assisted recently on a fire near Appleton.

GOES 12 Satellite image centered over Madison, Wisconsin

The Eastern Area Coordination Center predicts that low pressure will continue moving northeast through the Northern Big Rivers compact and into the Eastern Great Lakes by Sunday evening. There is a fairly good chance of precipitation over the central and eastern portions of the Great Lakes and Big Rivers compacts and the western Mid-Atlantic. Moderate south winds will prevail along the east coast, along with moderate RH levels. In the wake of the low pressure system, north winds will pull cooler air into the upper and mid Mississippi Valley.


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COUNTY SUPES REJECT INCREASED PREVENTION FUNDING RECOMMENDED BY GRAND JURY

APRIL 18 -- GRASS VALLEY, CA:  Nevada County won't spend more money on wildfire planning and prevention as advocated by a civil grand jury; that's part of the county supervisors' response to a county Civil Grand Jury report on wildfire preparedness issued earlier this year.

The Grass Valley Union reported that the grand jury recommended that the county spend public safety funds from a statewide sales tax and from unallocated Forest Reserve Funds on wildfire preparedness. But the board isn't likely to do either.

The civil jury called for more fire hazard abatement programs similar to a Nevada County Consolidated Fire District program, paid for with the half-cent statewide sales tax approved in 1993 for public safety. But supervisors don't want to stipulate that the funds be used for this purpose; in a tight budget year, that would put the squeeze on other public safety efforts.

The grand jury also called for a cost estimate of a major wildfire. The board doesn't plan to do that, either, saying it's an unwarranted and unreasonable expense.


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PLUME WORRIES CENTRAL OREGON RESIDENTS

APRIL 18 -- BEND, OR:  A tall plume three miles from Bend prompted dozens of calls yesterday to Deschutes County 9-1-1 dispatchers, but callers were told that it was only a prescribed burn under way near the Sundance subdivision, which was hit hard by a big fire seven years ago.

"It's looking real good," said Roland Giller, public affairs specialist on the Deschutes National Forest.

Federal and state firefighters torched about 250 acres of the 658-acre prescribed burn, according to a report by bend.com; the Fuzzy Project will reduce hazardous fuels near subdivisions and improve wildfire habitat. The first 100 acres were burned Thursday afternoon, but Giller said the effort -- delayed from late March because of weather -- may be put on hold again because northwest winds were forecast to turn and come from the south today. That would blow smoke into populated areas around Bend, something officials are working to avoid.

Eighteen firefighters with four engines, a dozer, and several all-terrain vehicles were conducting ignition operations, including ATVs equipped with driptorches. The burn is but one of many planned in the region this spring. The target, weather conditions permitting, is 21,235 acres on the Deschutes National Forest and 7,850 acres on the Ochoco National Forest. This project is just west of where the Skeleton Fire in 1996 destroyed 19 homes in the Sundance subdivision and blackened almost 18,000 acres.


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RESOURCES IN UK STRETCHED BY FIRES

APRIL 18 -- AYRSHIRE, SCOTLAND:   Dramatic wind changes could force firefighters in Ayrshire, Scotland, to evacuate homes as a rapidly-spreading fire, which started on Thursday and covers 12 square miles, continues to burn near Darvel. The BBC NEWS reported that in south Wales, dozens of houses and a children's home in Gwent were evacuated overnight, and on Thursday, five people were rescued by helicopter after they became trapped in a forest and heath fire in Dorset.

Firefighters in Ayrshire, who have been working round the clock, have been joined by crews from neighboring Lothian and Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, and a third helicopter was brought in from Devon to drop water on the fire.

"It is a very difficult type of fire to fight because of the weather conditions, the dryness, and the vegetation," said Strathclyde Fire Brigade's assistant firemaster Phil Robinson. "The weather is so hot and everything is so dry it could have been started by a cigarette end or anything. Being one of the largest brigades in Europe we are able to cope with this but it really is stretching our resources."

Farmers using quad bikes were out in the moorlands trying to rescue sheep.

Firefighters in South Wales battled a blaze which led to the evacuation of dozens of residents in Gwent, including some at a children's home. Hundreds of trees and a large area of bracken, gorse, and shrubs were destroyed as the fire ripped through a two-mile stretch between Cwmfelinfach and the A467 at Wattsville.

More than 120 firefighters were on a major fire at West End Common, Woking, Surrey, on Thursday. Willie Cairns, of the Forestry Commission, urged people to be more careful. "Extinguish matches properly, be careful with barbecues, and take rubbish home with you," he said, "because even a small piece of glass if hit by the sun in the right way can cause a fire."


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DON'T SPAM US, WE'LL IGNORE YOU

APRIL 18 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  The Forest Service wants your feedback, but no more spam. The agency's considering a regulation that would allow it to ignore public comments sent through web-based forms, according to a report by Medill News Service.

If people oppose logging in a national forest and send comments to the Forest Service from an environmental group's website, for example, the agency would ignore it -- under the proposed policy. Pre-printed postcards and other more traditional form letters would also be rejected. The new plan would essentially disable the web-based "action centers" that advocacy groups use to rally support and help people contact lawmakers electronically.

One of the reasons for such a rule is the avalanche of email and input generated through the internet -- and drastically reduced agency staff resources to deal with it. But even years before internet-capable agency feedback, managers were troubled by the dilemma of how to consider 5,000 identical postcards opposing a planned project and a dozen individual postcards in support of it. How to consider "public input" when it's obviously loaded?

Though the new plan may spring from good intentions, the digital civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation questions the legality and advisability of such a move. "Quite apart from being troubling, I think it's flatly unconstitutional," said Cindy Cohn, EFF legal director, "and we certainly would consider a legal challenge to the rule."

Ian Walters with the American Conservative Union said they use web tools to send nearly 30,000 form e-mails each quarter to federal agencies or elected representatives.

But the Forest Service says duplicated public comments, whether electronic or on paper, don't provide helpful input. "A bunch of e-mails that say the same thing with no specific comments don't tell us anything," said Joe Walsh, media relations manager in the national office. He says the agency will take emails by the millions -- if they receive specific comments. "If you're going to take the time to respond and you care, then put some effort into it," he said.

The Forest Service is expected to decide on the proposed new policy within the next few months. Walsh said the agency has received a number of objections to the proposed policy and could adjust it in the final regulation.


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FIRE SCAM BITES SAN DIEGO RED CROSS -- NEW CEO MAY HELP

APRIL 17 -- SAN DIEGO, CA:  The San Diego Red Cross has named a new chief executive officer in its struggle to regain public confidence after a scandal over use of donations intended to help disaster victims.

According to the Mercury News, the chapter's board yesterday hired Veronica Froman, who retired from the military in 2001 and has since served as chief of business and operations for San Diego public schools.

The Red Cross chapter is working to restore credibility after previous leaders were criticized for using donations intended for disaster victims on overhead expenses such as a phone-system upgrade and vehicle maintenance. The scandal surfaced after victims of a 2001 wildfire near Alpine complained that they received only $6,000 of the $400,000 raised in relief aid. A national audit criticized the chapter, and last summer the previous CEO and the board of directors were fired.

Donations to the chapter have plummeted since then. The charity expects to close its fiscal year in June with $2 million less in revenue than the year before.


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MUNICIPAL/CONTRACT DEBATE HEATS UP IN SCOTTSDALE

APRIL 17 -- SCOTTSDALE, AZ:  Community leaders and former city officials in Scottsdale are asking voters to support Rural/Metro, the corporation that for 52 years has brought Scottsdale "cost effective" fire service. Nick Barbisan, though, thinks Scottsdale should be like other major cities with municipal fire departments. His son Ethan was two days shy of 11 months old when his parents found him not breathing last July 13 about 1 a.m.

A frantic 911 call brought police to the door; they tried CPR, and at the sound of approaching sirens, carried the boy outside. But as Laurie Roberts points out in her column in the Arizona Republic, it took more than 13 minutes for the Rural/Metro Fire Department to arrive, and the boy died.

In a May 20 special election, Scottsdale voters will be asked to choose between continuing to have their fire service provided by Rural/Metro or establishing a municipal fire department. Rural/Metro president Kurt Krumperman says a city fire department wouldn't have done any better in Barbisan's case; he says response times are good and getting better as new fire stations are built. Phoenix assistant chief Bob Kahn, though, points out that neighboring Phoenix has a considerably better response time than Scottsdale's, and he says it's primarily because of "automatic aid." Phoenix is one of 21 Valley cities in a regional system using satellite technology to dispatch the closest engine, regardless of where it's stationed or which city it belongs to. It also uses computers in each truck to guide response to calls. They alert firefighters en route to construction hazards, provide updated information about the call, and display aerial views of the property.

Rural/Metro equips its firefighters with beepers and its trucks with notebooks full of maps.

Rural/Metro backers say it'll cost $6.4 million to transition to a city fire department, and several million more each year to operate it. But Scottsdale officials say if the town goes to four-man engines -- as national standards suggest -- then the city could operate for less money than Rural/Metro.


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CHICKEN CHOKER SAGA TAKES A SPIN FOR THE WEIRD

APRIL 17 -- SAN DIEGO, CA:  Animal rights organizations want the local district attorney to file animal cruelty charges against the owners of poultry ranches where thousands of chickens were destroyed amid the outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease.

But prosecutors decided last week that owners of an Escondido poultry ranch did not act with criminal intent when they instructed workers to destroy chickens in wood chippers -- one of many methods used in the industry for mass euthanasia.

Deputy District Attorney Elisabeth Silva, according to a story in the Sacramento Bee, said the ranchers were acting on the advice of a veterinarian. "It's cruel and it's callous, but it's part of any animal husbandry operation," said Silva.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, along with other federal and state agencies, have mobilized incident management teams in response to the outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease. They've been supporting the APHIS operation under a unified command, and operations are under way in Arizona, California, and Nevada.

The Lafayette Advertiser, meanwhile, reported today that the disease has now spread to Texas. State Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Bob Odom said yesterday that a quarantine of all eggs and poultry products from quarantined areas is in effect in Louisiana.

Exotic Newcastle Disease was confirmed in California last year and has now reached El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas and Dona Ana, Luna, and Otero counties in New Mexico. Because of the disease, 3.5 million birds have been destroyed in California, and the disease has been found in 16,000 locations throughout the state.

The Texas Animal Health Commission in Austin says the disease strikes so quickly that some infected birds don't show any signs of the illness before they die. The disease is spread through bodily discharges from infected birds and can lie dormant in a warm, humid environment -- such as feathers or manure -- until it is introduced into a healthy host. Humans may be the prime delivery mechanism; farm workers may pick up the virus on their shoes or clothing while working in an infected flock and then transfer the virus into a healthy group of poultry.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry has fact sheets online in several languages.

In California, the disease has forced California ranchers to slaughter nearly 3.4 million birds since October. On Tuesday, the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked the district attorney to reconsider the decision not to file cruelty charges. "A determination from your office that it is not illegal to throw live hens into a wood chipper could put millions of animals in California's egg farm industry at risk," said the letter from the two groups.


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CANADIAN PRAIRIE FIRE RISK HIGH THIS YEAR

APRIL 17 -- TORONTO, ONT:  The risk of wildfires on Canadian prairies is higher this spring because of below-normal precipitation over the winter, according to Environment Canada.

"With a low snowpack -- that's the important thing from what I understand about fire-moisture conditions -- not good news," Jay Anderson, a meteorologist with Environment Canada in Winnipeg, told the Toronto Globe and Mail yesterday. Over the winter, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan experienced between 60 and 80 percent lower-than-normal precipitation. Some areas of Alberta were as low as 57 percent of normal. "There certainly have been dry pockets," said Anderson. "It looks like a set of measles on the Prairies when I look at the map."

Last year, for the third year in a row, Alberta declared the forest fire season a month early because of dry conditions and had nearly four times the normal acreage burned. The province's largest fire was the House Fire, which burned for three weeks and sent smoke drifting as far south as Calgary. At its peak, more than 900 firefighters, 45 helicopters, and eight water-bombers were working to contain the fire. The fire was so huge that it created its own lightning.

In British Columbia, according to the B.C. Ministry of Forests, it was a moderately busy fire season last year. The southern portion of the province had hot and dry weather with above-normal temperatures, while the north saw a drier cooler summer with moderate fire danger ratings. From January 1 to October 31, 2002, there were 1,729 fires, 866 caused by lightning and 863 caused by people.

Manitoba's Department of Conservation is already gearing up for the worst. Bob Enns, manager of the fire program for the province, said the next few weeks before green-up are critical; 32 fires have been recorded already in Manitoba this spring. The province has fire crews in place, along with nine aircraft, including several water-bombers.

The Environment Canada forecast to the end of May shows normal to above-normal precipitation across Alberta and Saskatchewan and most of Manitoba. For the summer months to the end of August, Alberta and Saskatchewan are predicted to have above-normal precipitation, while Manitoba is expected to have lower precipitation. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre [CIFFC] cautions that the dry spring and low winter moistures have wildfire managers concerned through the central portions of Canada. The wildfire situation has the potential to be extreme in the short and long term, and the public is urged to be careful with brush burning or campfires over the Easter Weekend.


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COLORADO GOVERNOR PRE-POSITIONS SEATS

APRIL 17 -- DENVER, CO:  Three single-engine airtankers and 10 engines will be pre-positioned at strategic locations across Colorado for quick response to wildfires this summer; Gov. Bill Owens has authorized about $1.6 million in state disaster emergency funds to pay for the preparations.

"Despite the March blizzard, some three-fourths of the state is still in extreme drought condition," said Owens. "While the start of this year's fire season may be delayed, the fact is that we again have to be prepared to respond quickly and decisively when fires start."

An AP story in the Casper Star-Tribune reported that after three years of drought, the fire potential is high across much of the state. The emergency funds will allow the Colorado State Forest Service to preposition three 800-gallon SEATs and support the operation of 10 engines that the state obtained this year for $10 million. State-leased SEATs flew 194 missions on 61 fires last year, containing 51 of them almost immediately. About 90 percent of the fires were kept under 10 acres, mostly because of pre-positioned resources. Owens also said the state's inmate firefighting crew will be expanded this summer.


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LOS ALAMOS READIES FOR FIRE SEASON

APRIL 16 -- LOS ALAMOS, NM:  With fire season creeping up the brown hillsides of Los Alamos, residents are ready to fight back. Hundreds of Los Alamos residents were left homeless when the Cerro Grande Fire ripped through the town three years ago. The Albuquerque Tribune reported that residents gathered last night to hear an assessment of the coming danger.

They heard from experts that fire conditions this year are the same, if not worse, than they were when the Cerro Grande incinerated their town.

"We lost everything in the Cerro Grande -- we just had no idea it would be that serious," said local resident Earl Hoffman. "I certainly don't intend to lose another house to fire. I think now we've rebuilt one that won't burn." The Hoffmans' new house has a steel roof, stucco and cement walls, a fire-resistant deck, metal window cladding with tempered glass, fire-resistant doors, and sprinklers under the eaves. It's surrounded by 30 feet of cleared space.

At the forum, residents were told that insects and drought have combined to create the potential for another disastrous fire season. "We have a growing infestation of bark beetles, which are killing large numbers of trees," said Carlos Valdez, a New Mexico State University horticulturist. "It's all moisture-related. When the trees have adequate moisture, the bark beetles can't take hold. But with the drought, the problem will continue to get worse." Bark beetles, which consume drought-stressed trees, are leaving large stands of dead forest, all ready to go up at the slightest spark, Valdez said.

Precipitation for the first quarter of 2003 was half the normal level, and snowpack in northern New Mexico is also at half its normal level, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory data.

Fire conditions might be worse this year, but emergency personnel said they are better prepared than they were in 2000. Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Forest Service, state and county staff, and The Nature Conservancy have been working on 17 fuels reduction projects in the Los Alamos area. Emergency plans are also improving, said Phil Taylor, the Los Alamos County Emergency Management Coordinator.

"We're looking at a lot of things, trying to come up with the best plans," Taylor said. "Precisely the things that make this area a perfect place for a secret weapons facility are also the things that make it so damned hard to evacuate. There are only two ways in and two ways out."


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WE'RE FROM THE HIGH SCHOOL AND WE'RE HERE TO HELP YOU

APRIL 16 -- DURANGO, CO:  A group of Durango High School students spent lunch hour last Friday preparing disaster-response kits for families living near the Missionary Ridge burn area. The students wanted to do something for the community to celebrate National Youth Service Day on April 11. The event was the kickoff, according to the Durango Herald, for a wildfire safety project the students are creating to educate younger students. About 40 students are planning the educational program they will present; some will do educational skits for children, and others will take students into the burn area to explain the effects of the fire.

The Missionary Ridge Fire started June 9 last year; the 70,485-acre fire was human-caused and was contained July 17 at a cost of over $40 million. It destroyed 56 homes and 27 outbuildings.

Katharine Warren, a sophomore at the high school, said the project is meaningful to students because of the fire's effect locally. "It hits home because there are people in this group who have been affected," she said. "We want to help make kids be more aware of their surroundings in a context they will understand."

Mark Rappe, an outreach advocate with Lutheran Disaster Response, said the material the students put together is being distributed to families in wildfire-prone areas. The organization received a FEMA grant for a long-term community-recovery project.

The students plan to take their safety program to other schools around the area, particularly those near the burn areas. Durango High School has an enrollment of 1473 students; part of the school's mission is to "educate students to become active citizens who positively affect their communities."


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NO WAY, WE WON'T PAY

APRIL 15 -- RAPID CITY, SD:  Black Hills Power in South Dakota and Plum Creek Timber in Montana both insisted this week that they're not responsible for major wildfires and they're not going to pay for them.

Black Hills Power formally denied responsibility for the Grizzly Gulch Fire last summer, which threatened Lead and Deadwood and burned more than 10,000 acres.

"The cause of the Grizzly Gulch Fire was an act of God and/or other independent and intervening acts," attorneys for Black Hills Power wrote in an eight-paragraph answer to a federal lawsuit filed last month. According to the Aberdeen News, the company "denies it caused or contributed to" causing the fire.

The federal complaint blamed the Rapid City utility company for failing to trim trees that grew into a power transmission line and ignited the fire. The fire began June 29 in Grizzly Gulch; dry conditions and strong winds pushed the fire, which destroyed seven homes and 13 outbuildings and forced the evacuation of Deadwood's hotels and gambling casinos. Crews worked for two weeks to bring the fire under control, and the cost is estimated at $17 million.

The federal suit was filed on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In Montana, Plum Creek Timber has said it "respectfully declines" to take any responsibility for two fires ignited by loggers on its timberland at Lolo Pass during the summer of 2000 -- or for the $11 million the Forest Service spent fighting those fires after they spread onto national forest land. The Missoulian reported that an attorney for Plum Creek blamed the contractors hired to log on company-owned forestland. Sparks created by logging equipment accidentally ignited the wildfires, said attorney Stephen Thomas, but no company employees were on-site at the time.

"There is no evidence of negligence by Plum Creek," he said. "Plum Creek respectfully declines to take any responsibility" for either the Bear Camp Fire or the Crooked Fire. A demand letter sent to Plum Creek in February asked the company to reimburse the Forest Service for nearly $11 million in suppression costs. Agency staff say that Plum Creek's reluctance to pay the bills will in no way deter the Forest Service from its reimbursement mission.

"The U.S. citizens -- taxpayers -- are out $11 million, so that's what we are working to recover," said Doug Gochnour, the Clearwater National Forest's administrative officer. "We really don't care who pays us. There's just an outstanding cost to the taxpayers that we want to recover." He said the file on the Crooked Fire has been turned over to Forest Service lawyers.


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EUGENE FIRE VIDEO FINALIST FOR NATIONAL AWARD

APRIL 15 -- EUGENE, OR:   A public service video produced by the Eugene Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is a finalist for a Telly Award, which honors outstanding U.S. television commercials, video productions, and films.

The seven-minute video, "We'll Be There," first aired last summer. The Register-Guard reported that the video explains the department's decision, effective last July, to add daytime ambulances staffed by medical personnel who are not cross-trained as firefighters. The video also explains why fire engines respond to medical emergencies.

"We'll Be There" was produced by Robert Lewis of Metro TV, an in-house video production center that provides services for Lane County agencies and jurisdictions. They produce videotapes to educate citizens and officials, and to enhance public sector employees' efficiency. Ken Warren, also of Metro TV, narrated the video, which was written by Glen Potter, fire department staff.

The Telly Awards were founded in 1980, to showcase outstanding non-network and cable commercials. The competition was expanded several years ago to include film and video productions; judges are top production professionals. Entries scoring 7.0 to 8.9 on a 10-point scale become finalists, and entries scoring 9.0 or higher are winners. Entries do not compete against each other but are judged against a high standard of excellence.

Eugene Fire provides fire and rescue services to an area of about 71 square miles containing urban, suburban, and rural zones. The fire suppression response area includes all of the incorporated area of the City of Eugene, plus several neighboring districts. The department also provides emergency medical response and ambulance transport service to an area of about 440 square miles. The department includes two divisions, Operations and Administration, and staffs 11 fire stations on a 24-hour basis. Administration includes Emergency Medical Services (four 24-hour ambulances plus three peak-demand units), Fire Prevention, Planning, Logistics, and administrative support services. The department employs approximately 200 personnel.


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IT WON'T RAIN ALL SUMMER

APRIL 15 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Spring rains across the West are making for great greenup in the mountains and across the deserts, but all that rain means more fuels for wildfires. But according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah firefighters are praying for more than just April showers a year after 28 major fires and scores of smaller fires burned 262,200 acres across the state.

"We want to see it rain all summer," said Sheldon Wimmer, fire management officer with Utah BLM.

The first fire of the season burned 25 acres in Panguitch on April 2 when a fire got away from people burning ditches. And fire managers are all too aware that resources this year are limited:  80 percent of National Guard members -- a key clutch-time contingent for fire agencies -- have been activated for duty in Iraq. And nationwide, the heavy airtanker fleet is down 25 percent from 44 to 33, with the grounding of 11 aircraft last summer.

The spring rains are loading the lowlands with non-native cheatgrass and other fuels. Alpine snowpack ranging from 50 to 80 percent of normal means the high country is vulnerable as Utah enters its fifth season of drought.

"So it's the worst of both worlds," said Dave Dalrymple, fire management coordinator for Utah's Division of Forestry. "The potential is high for big fires in the desert and big fires in the mountains."

In 1982, a single lightning storm started 300 fires in Utah. In 1983, one cheatgrass fire burned 209,000 acres from Dugway to the Great Salt Lake because spring moisture had loaded the landscape with fuel. "It took off with strong wind and there was nothing we could do," said Dalrymple. "We threw airtankers and everything we had at it."

"Native grasses stay green a long time," he added, "but cheatgrass is like gasoline after about June 15."

Several years of drought stress across the state has resulted in extensive dead stands of piñon-juniper, or "red slash," and a wind-driven p-j fire can be virtually unstoppable. Utah's worst fire last year was the Rattle Complex in the Book Cliffs, an eight-week blaze that burned 88,000 acres of BLM and state lands and cost $12 million to fight.

Dennis Peebler, (hi peebz) FMO for the Flaming Gorge NRA on the Ashley National Forest, can see the aftermath of last summer's Mustang Ridge Fire from his office window. "It really hit those people at a bad time, right at the Fourth of July last year," he said.

His area has bumped up to 80 percent snowpack with a few late storms, and he hopes the rain continues. "But it could turn warm and windy, and dry up real fast," he said, "or it could be cool and damp and push it way back. It's springtime in the Rockies, you never can tell."


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ARIZONA BORDER FIRE

APRIL 15 -- TUCSON, AZ:  Arizona's first big border fire of the year burned nearly 1,500 acres of grassland yesterday along the Mexican border southeast of Sierra Vista.

According to an AP report in the Arizona Republic, the fire was contained; it started east of the San Pedro River and was human-caused.

Southwest fire map

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the fire was near Palominas on BLM land. Firefighters from Palominas, the BLM and the Forest Service were on the fire, including 11 engines and about 65 firefighters. Firefighters conducted a burnout east of the San Pedro River to contain the fire and protect houses.

BLM spokesman David Peters said the fire was probably started by an undocumented immigrant. He said a Border Patrol agent saw a man in tall grass Sunday morning, then noticed a fire in the same area later.

The Southwest Area Coordination Center reports that crews are patrolling the perimeter and mopping up today.


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$500 MILLION IN FIRE FUNDS YANKED FROM BUDGET

APRIL 13 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  Budget negotiators have stripped $500 million in wildfire funds from the federal spending plan for next year, reversing last month's Senate decision. According to an AP report in the Statesman-Journal, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said majority Republicans rejected his proposal for the $500 million increase that he persuaded the Senate to add. With that extra $500 million, spending for the National Fire Plan would have increased to $3.1 billion in the budget year beginning October 1.

But on Friday, budget negotiators from the House and Senate decided to allocate only $2.6 billion for the fiscal year. The funding increase for the National Fire Plan was among many items that were cut.

"There was a real effort to take out things not directly related to homeland defense, the war on Iraq, or other core items," said one staff member.

Fire agencies last year spent $1.6 billion on suppression -- four times the budgeted amount, and some of the funds came from other accounts such as restoration, fuels reduction, and research.


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PALM BEACH COUNTY SMOKED OUT

APRIL 11 -- ROYAL PALM BEACH, FL:  Stiff winds pushed a fire across more than 400 acres of woodland in and around The Acreage in north Palm Beach County yesterday, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Heavy smoke was reported as far away as Singer Island and in Riviera Beach. Wind gusts were reported as high as 30 mph and officials said the fire could affect traffic on Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike. The fire was still smoldering late yesterday, but officials expected it to burn itself out.

The Baker County Standard reported that April 6-12 was designated as "Wildfire Awareness Week," and many residents recalled the devastating season of 1998. "At one time during that fire season, there were wildfires burning in every one of Florida's 67 counties," said Annaleasa Winter, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist. "That was an experience we should never forget."

Also this week, the State Fire Marshal's Office issued recommendations for new statewide training standards after an investigation of the training deaths of two Osceola County firefighters in July 2002. The report summarizes the live-fire training incident in which a flashover killed Lt. John Mickel and rookie firefighter Dallas Begg while they performed a search and rescue drill in a one-story cement block house.

The report, according to firehouse.com, says there was no written plan reviewed in advance, there was too much fuel for the fire and not enough ventilation, and no alternate escape route from the fire room. Also, six minutes passed between the first unanswered radio messages to Mickel and Begg, and the time a crew was deployed to look for them.

In an effort to avoid a similar tragedy in the future, the Fire Marshal's Office is recommending that the current edition of NFPA 1403 be adopted as state law. Osceola County Fire Rescue adopted it in December 2002.


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SOUTHWEST CREWS GEAR UP FOR SEASON

APRIL 08 -- PHOENIX, AZ:   With the scars of last summer's wildfires still covering nearly a half million acres of Arizona, East Valley firefighters are training up as part of a statewide aid system.

Chandler Battalion Chief Kevin Ward hopes to train enough firefighters to have an East Valley strike team, including five engines and crews, available on two hours' notice. Ward, whose first experience with a wildfire was the 1990 Dude Fire that claimed six lives, said it's critical for urban firefighters to learn how fire behaves when it's not contained within a building.

"It's a whole different type of firefighting," Ward said.

The East Valley effort, according to a report by the Arizona Republic, is part of a statewide mutual aid system that's been planned among fire chiefs for a decade and should be in place by this summer. It will be an extension of the mutual aid agreements in place between many urban fire departments, and should streamline the process of calling for help from other agencies.

"The state will link all such cooperative groups together via this system," said Goodyear Fire Chief Mark Gaillard, who heads the mutual aid subcommittee of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association. "If I have that tremendous catastrophic event in my community, I make one phone call and all the help is coming."

The Arizona Fire Mutual Aid System is a grassroots effort that started with $37,000 of federal grant money, said Larry Drake, fire chief of the Sedona Fire District. "We all recognize the state's got a budget problem right now, so we haven't pushed for the money. We're each trying to do it on our own budgets," he said.

The state has agreements with 230 fire departments for fires on state and federal land. "A typical year we may spend $1 million to $3 million," said Scott Hunt, Phoenix District forester for the Arizona State Land Department.

The 2003 fire season is expected to be above average in some areas of the state; early precipitation added fuels across drought-parched areas. New Mexico has already seen its first large fire; the Alamogordo Daily News reported that a fire started around 1:30 a.m. Saturday near the small central New Mexico town of Bernardo south of Albuquerque. State Forestry fire information officer Karen Lightfoot said winds had pushed the San Francisco Fire to over 1,000 acres by late Saturday evening. Firefighters thought they had the fire out early Saturday, but the wind blew it over the river. The fire had two heads, Lightfoot said, one moving south on the east side of the river and one moving north on the west side.

U.S. 60 was closed down Saturday because of thick smoke; two vehicles crashed on the highway because of reduced visibility. State Police helped evacuate Boys Ranch and a few surrounding homes. The Southwest Area Coordination Center reported that the San Francisco Fire was 60 percent contained at 2,080 acres yesterday morning and full containment was expected last night.


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ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS WINS PULITZER FOR FIRE PHOTOGRAPHY

APRIL 07 -- DENVER, CO:  Denver's Rocky Mountain News photo staff have won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of last year's Colorado forest fires. The package of photos captured residents who lost homes, firefighters battling walls of flame, and photos purchased from a freelancer of an airtanker as it crashed near Estes Park.

"It reflects the commitment of this newspaper to storytelling and that includes great photography," said editor and publisher John Temple. "We know readers love powerful photography."

Photography director Janet Reeves said the wildfires were difficult to cover because they were scattered across the state from April through summer's end. Many photographers gave up personal time and canceled vacations to stick with the story.

"It was good to celebrate the work we put in," said photographer George Kochaniec Jr. "We stayed away from our families for weeks and weeks in bad, bad conditions."

The paper has a photo essay slideshow on their site with some of the best fire photos, and photo reprints are available.


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JALAPEÑO CHEESE AND RANGER PUDDING

APRIL 07 -- NATICK, MA:  There is a seriousness of purpose in the Department of Defense test kitchen these days. They're making MREs. The new Meals Ready to Eat created for the troops in Iraq are developed by the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, and new recipes are tailored to the tastes of an ethnically diverse fast-food generation raised on tacos, teriyaki, and Starbucks.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that when the food scientists originally developed MREs, they didn't ask what the modern soldier (or hotshot) might find appealing. But the soldiers told them -- and in no uncertain terms -- calling the field rations "Meals Rejected by Everyone," "Meals Regurgitated by Ethiopians," "Minimum Retching Equivalent," and other derogatory alternatives. They tossed unopened brown plastic bags filled with casseroles and ham loaf into the desert, and had nicknames for the worst entrees, like the "four fingers of death," or smoked frankfurters.

MRE with SKITTLESSince the war in Iraq began, the MRE part of the program has been front and center. Each year, the military orders about 3 million of the 1½-pound food packages from three commercial food manufacturers contracted to produce them. Since October, however, the order has doubled and the factories are on overtime. More than 48 million MREs are stockpiled in the warehouses of Kuwait.

The new MREs include 24 entrees, with four vegetarian options like cheese tortellini and pasta Alfredo. Some feature Thai chicken, Jamaican pork chops, or a gloppy cheese dish called Mexican macaroni. Little bottles of Tabasco or packets of cayenne are included. Dried cappuccino and chai are replacing freeze-dried coffee. The military has even developed its own power bar, called the HooAH! bar.

An MRE with a pack of Skittles or M&Ms or Jolly Ranchers is considered a good one, and some of those have become popular currency in poker games. The food inside the plastic MRE bag must be edible for up to three years stored at 80 degrees, and the packages have to be waterproof, vermin-proof, and able to survive a 100-foot drop without a parachute. Nutritional requirements are specified in an eight-page publication and overseen by dietitian Judy Aylward at the Natick center. She has to ensure that each meal contains about 1,250 calories, with enough carbohydrate, fat, protein, and vitamins to satisfy the surgeon general. That gives each soldier about 3,750 calories a day.

In the vegetarian meals, getting enough protein and zinc is a problem, so Aylward makes sure those meals have packets of peanut butter. In fact, she is using so much peanut butter, soldiers are complaining.

"No one can eat that much peanut butter," wrote one soldier in a feedback form that hit Aylward's desk recently. "I suggest replacing it with more jalapeño cheese spread, which is excellent."

The crew at Natick constantly tweaks the MRE menu. Behavioral scientists go through soldiers' trash during field exercises to see what's being rejected; they look at items that get traded or used in unexpected ways, like the cocoa powder and nondairy creamer that soldiers mix into crumbled crackers or pound cake to create "Ranger pudding."

Next year, the Jamaican pork chop and the beef with mushrooms will be out, but New England clam chowder will be in. By 2005, the dreaded Country Captain chicken and Thai chicken will make way for a cheese omelet and chicken fajitas -- the latter a dish that couldn't be included until the commercial producers who contract with the military could wade through the specifications and find a way to keep flour tortillas fresh for three years.

"But they really want pizza and beer," Aylward said. "We're working on it -- the pizza, at least."


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McINNIS:  BURN DUFF, GENERATE POWER

APRIL 05 -- SUMMIT COUNTY, CO:  U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis wants to burn duff from the forest floor to generate electricity while simultaneously reducing wildfire danger. A bill he is sponsoring would expand biomass energy production by providing $50 million in two grant programs to nonprofit organizations, Indian tribes, small communities, and private individuals. According to a report by the Summit Daily News, applicants could receive $100,000 from one program to offset the costs of building a plant, and $100,000 from the second program to help pay for the costs of collecting biomass material.

Duff is the woody material on the forest floor -- pine needles, twigs, leaves, branches, and other organic matter -- and in many areas the duff has accumulated to unnatural depths.

"Everyone's looking for alternative energy sources," said McInnis' press secretary Blair Jones. Forest biomass fuel is a relatively clean source of energy, releasing only small amounts of carbon dioxide. The byproduct -- ash -- can be used in fertilizer.

BIOMASS FACTS:

• An area can be harvested for biomass every 15 to 20 years

• Producing energy from biomass is more expensive than generating energy from petroleum or natural gas

• It would take 70 million acres of land to produce enough biomass to offset 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuel emissions

Under McInnis' proposal, grant recipients would be required to abide by all environmental regulations and laws. The proposal was included in President Bush's comprehensive energy bill, which passed the Resources Committee last week. The proposal has bipartisan support, and will head to the House next week.

If biomass markets were available, much of the otherwise valueless material gleaned from fuels reduction projects could generate significant profits to offset the costs of its removal, while providing a source of alternative energy in rural regions. Currently biomass energy contributes 3 percent of U.S. energy production (and 38 percent of the energy generated from renewable fuels). Of this, 34 percent is fueled by wood from mill residues and forests. With existing facilities located in the Northeast, Southeast, and on the West Coast, the buildup of forest fuels in the inland West could provide significant new opportunities for energy development.

California has been producing energy from biomass for more than a decade. According to the California Energy Commission, combustion power plants use forest slash, urban wood waste, agricultural waste, and byproducts from lumber mills to generate electricity. California's biopower industry is the largest in the nation; the state has a total installed biomass capacity of 567 MW, and is responsible for 6 percent of the total U.S. biomass electricity generating capacity. The California Energy Commission provides assistance in developing biomass energy projects and offers many services for companies willing to invest in biomass projects. California also offers grants for biomass innovations.

"With billions of tons of small dead trees, twigs and brush choking our forests, biomass energy could provide a real shot in the arm for domestic energy production," said McInnis, who is Chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. "It's renewable, it's clean, and these small woody materials have to be removed anyway, in order to get a handle on our wildfire crisis."

The American Bioenergy Association and Biomass Energy Research Association and Biomass Research & Development Initiative have more information online.


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WYOMING PLANS NEW COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

APRIL 04 -- CHEYENNE, WY:  If a police officer at point A cannot communicate with a firefighter at point B in the middle of a major emergency, the state has a problem. And, as the Casper Star-Tribune reported today, public safety agencies in the state are not on the same wavelength.

A plan for a statewide communications system to link all agencies is under way; the statewide "Public Safety Mobile Communications Plan" (PSMC) being developed by a consultant firm, Federal Engineering, and is due by October.

Kelly Hamilton, a cochair of the steering committee for the project, said the issue is interoperability -- a system that will allow agencies to talk to each other when the need arises. Hamilton is also chairman of the State Agency Law Enforcement Communications System Commission (SALECS).

Hamilton said that people expect the highway patrol, sheriff, police, and firefighters to be able to talk to each other. But in case of a large rangeland wildfire, the agencies also need to communicate with the state forester, federal agencies, and cities and towns. "Radio systems are so very, very expensive for cities and counties to do on their own," said Hamilton. "We can get more if we pool our resources and we have the ability to talk to one another in a hazmat situation, a wildfire, a high-speed chase, or a bioterrorism or agri-terrorism event."

Last week Gov. Dave Freudenthal said estimated costs of a statewide system ranged from $26 million to $75 million. Robert Wilson of the Wyoming Department of Transportation said that South Dakota spent $26 million on its statewide system, primarily with grant dollars. He said that after the steering committee gets the consultants' report later this month, the state will go to industry for requests for information on the technology needed and estimated costs.


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WYOMING RxFIRE GETS AWAY

APRIL 04 -- SUNDANCE, WY:  Higher-than-expected winds and temperatures blew a prescribed burn out of control north of Sundance on Tuesday, but firefighters had it about 40 percent contained by midday Wednesday. The fire, according to the Rapid City Journal, burned about 400 acres of national forest and private land in the Bear Lodge Mountains. Forest Service fire information officer Rick Hudson said crews were mopping up.

Forest Service crews started the prescribed burn Monday to reduce fuel loads, but unexpected weather conditions pushed it beyond initial control lines. About 100 firefighters were working on the fire Wednesday. Hudson said they expected containment by this evening.


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NEW FUELS BILL INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS

APRIL 04 -- WASHINGTON, DC:  New legislation to protect communities at risk from fire was introduced yesterday by Reps. George Miller of California and Peter DeFazio of Oregon. The "Federal Lands Hazardous Fuels Reduction Act of 2003" (H.R.1621) would provide assistance to local communities to treat private lands at risk of wildfire, and would also speed up the decision-making process for fuels reduction projects on public lands within a half mile of an at-risk community. At-risk lands near municipal water supply systems would also be covered.

"This is an innovative bill that would help protect Western communities at risk of wildfire," said Miller, the former chairman and former senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee with jurisdiction over this issue. "We allow for a faster approval process without weakening environmental laws, and we also provide grants directly to local communities for fire treatment on private lands."

DeFazio, who has served on the Resources Committee for 15 years, said the bill protects communities while providing strong protections for old growth forests. Aggressive fire suppression for decades has resulted in dangerous overstocking of timber and a massive buildup of brushy fuels, and DeFazio said what was once-rare catastrophic wildfires now annually threaten communities.

"This bill is the first step in a long process to help return our public lands to their natural state where low-intensity fires can burn to enhance and protect the natural health of the forest," said DeFazio.

The bill would authorize Congress to spend nearly $4 billion over five years for fuels reduction on public lands; it would require Congress to set aside an additional $500 million over five years from the Reforestation Trust Fund to be given as grants directly to state and local communities for hazardous fuels reduction efforts. Federal lands within a half mile of an at-risk community would receive priority; 75 percent of the new funding would be set aside for such projects.

The bill would accelerate the review and approval process for projects impacting federal lands within a half mile of a community -- or on at-risk lands near municipal water supply systems. That streamlined analysis process would be limited to such areas. The bill would also maintain current protections for roadless areas, requiring full environmental analysis for projects in inventoried roadless areas or endangered species habitat.

The bill would also create a new petition process for communities that object to the classification of lands at risk.

According to an AP story in the Arizona Daily Sun, Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado is expected to introduce another forest-thinning bill later this month. McInnis has said he hopes to pass wildfire legislation before the start of the fire season. A member of his staff called the new bill a "positive signal" that Democratic congressmen who tried to reach a compromise last year are still interested in a bipartisan solution.