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Bush budget would boost fire funds

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WASHINGTON – Funding for wildfire fighting would go up significantly under President Bush’s budget plan, but the final total would still fall short of the actual money spent on fire suppression in recent years.

Bush’s plan calls for a 15 percent boost in wildfire suppression, from $790 million in fiscal year 2004 to $908 million in fiscal year 2005, under the administration’s plan for the Interior and Agriculture departments. The departments’ hazardous fuels reduction would also be increased from $442 million to $475 million.

Administration officials say the wildfire budgets show the president is keeping promises he has made to address overgrown forests. Few other domestic programs would grow under the $2.4 trillion Bush budget, which focuses heavily on defense and homeland security spending. The total Ag Department budget, for instance, would fall by 8 percent despite the fire suppression increase.

"All in all, this is a very robust budget," said Mark Rey about the fire budget, who, as Agriculture Department under secretary for natural resources and environment, is in charge of the Forest Service.

Still, there is a gap between what is budgeted and what has been spent in recent years.

At $908 million, the total tapped for wildfire fighting falls short of the $1.4 billion that was spent to fight wildfires in 2002 and is slightly shy of the $1 billion that was needed in 2003.

Environmentalists say the $475 million for hazardous fuels reduction is far short of the $760 million that was promised in legislation overhauling forest policy that President Bush signed into law last year.

"It is an increase, and for that you can say, ‘thank you,’ but it is nowhere near what is needed," said Mike Francis of the Wilderness Society.