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Federal Wildfire Reduction Program Faces Funding Cuts

Expert Says Removing Hazardous Fuels Helps Reduce ‘Mega-Fires’

Above: A photographer looks on as smoke rises around the Lee Valley Recreational area in the Apache National Forest on June 12, 2011 in Big Lake, Arizona.

Aired 11/21/11 on KPBS News.

There's a proposal in a U.S. Senate committee to cut funding for a program which helps reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

There's a proposal in a U.S. Senate committee to cut funding for a program which helps reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The proposal comes at a time when studies show wildfires are getting bigger.

The hazardous fuels reduction program pays for tree thinning and the removal of dead trees and vegetation to reduce the chance for wildfires to become destructive and dangerous mega-fires.

"California gets most of the hazardous fuels reduction program money because of its large geographic size, high mega-fire danger and because the state matches nearly all of the funding it receives from the program," said Chris Topik, director of The Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program.

Topik, who worked for 16 years as a forest ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said cutting funding for the national program is a bad idea.

"We had some of the worst fires this year in state history in Arizona, in New Mexico and Texas," said Topik. "For instance in Arizona where a bunch of treatments were done several communities in the mountains were saved because the forests had been thinned, the hazardous fuels had been removed."

Firefighters battle the Witch fire on Oct. 23, 2007, in Escondido.
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Above: Firefighters battle the Witch fire on Oct. 23, 2007, in Escondido.

Topik is also a former deputy director for the Interior Appropriations Committee.

He said the Senate's proposed 24 percent cut to the federal Hazardous Fuels program for 2012 would be bad fiscal policy too.

"The prevention money actually pays for itself by reducing suppression costs, by reducing damage to watersheds and reducing people's houses being burned down," Topik said.

He said the proposed funding cut comes after the worst fire decade in recorded U.S. history. Topik said this decade is following the same trend.

He said half of California's 20 largest historic wildfires happened in the last 11 years.

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