Flames from the Rim Fire destroy trees on Sunday, 25 August 2013, near Groveland, California. The fire had consumed nearly 134,000 acres as of Sunday. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

By Jeff Barnard, with additional writing by Matthew Daly in Washington
21 August 2013

GRANTS PASS, Oregon (AP) – Running out of money to fight wildfires at the peak of the season, the U.S. Forest Service is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation, and other areas to fill the gap.

The nation's top wildfire-fighting agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million so far this year, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said Wednesday in an email.

Chambers says the $50 million the Forest Service has left is typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.

There are 51 large uncontained fires burning across the nation, making it tough to meet demands for fire crews and equipment.

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell sent a letter Aug. 16 to regional foresters and other top officials telling them to come up with the cuts by Friday.

"I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public whom we serve and on our many valuable partners, as well as agency operations, target accomplishments and performance," he wrote. "I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency."

It was the sixth time the Forest Service has had to divert funds since 2002, Chambers said. […]

The mandatory budget cutting measure known as sequestration reduced the Forest Service budget 5 percent, forcing cuts of 500 firefighters and 50 engines.

Wildfire spending by other federal agencies takes the total to $1.2 billion so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. That is more than half last year's total of $1.9 billion, and fast-approaching the 10-year average of $1.4 billion. There have been 33,000 fires that have burned more than 5,300 square miles — an area nearly the size of Connecticut. […]

Christopher Topik, a director of Restoring America's Forests for The Nature Conservancy, said he could not fault Tidwell for diverting money to wildfires.

"We can't allow our towns and forests to all burn down," he said. "It's also irresponsible not to fund (prevention efforts) because it is an expected disaster." [more]

AP Newsbreak: Feds running out of wildfire money

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