Six weeks later, Georgia fires still raging
The state's inability to keep the fires from rushing out of the Okefenokee Swamp is kindling a debate over lagging forestry budgets.
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Timber companies have begun to outsource plantation management, reducing the number of privately owned firefighting equipment from 180 to 20 in the past three years. That leaves the state with an increased responsibility to protect corporately owned lands, which bring in about $560 million in tax revenue each year.Skip to next paragraph
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Moreover, a Georgia State University study from 2003 showed that, when adjusting for inflation (but not for drought), the Georgia Forestry Commission should be receiving more than $60 million a year to prevent and fight fires. Instead, it will receive $42 million if Gov. Sonny Perdue signs next year's budget, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. In comparison, the south Georgia fires are expected to cost $42 million by the time they're put out. The US government will pay 75 percent of the firefighting costs.
The commission has lost 207 rangers, mostly to attrition, in the past 16 years. This week, local milk trucks were hauling water to holding ponds, and prison inmate fire departments were carrying out "structure protection" to save homes. While overall federal funding for state fire planning efforts has increased since the establishment of the National Fire Plan in 2000, money toward clearing brush and other fire mitigation measures on non-government lands has decreased by $20 million a year since 2004. That tends to affect Southern states like Georgia especially, experts say, since more than 90 percent of wildfires here occur on private pine plantations.
"People are desperately trying to get state and federal funding restored so we can better manage these forests and reduce the incidence of these catastrophic fires," says Steve Kline, a policy analyst with the National Association of State Foresters in Washington.
Even as their budgets have been stagnant, forestry managers have been maximizing what they have on hand.
But "there's a point where weather, temperature, wind, and humidity come together to create a catastrophic fire season where even a fairly well-prepared [agency] just cannot overcome forces that are so powerful at one place at one time to be overwhelming," says Mike Countess, a policy analyst with the Southern Group of State Foresters in Atlanta.
Morale has been a problem, too, because Forestry Commission firefighters earn vacation days instead of overtime pay. Many firefighters have accrued hundreds of hours in time off that they will probably not be able to take because of a busy fire season and staff shortages.
One of the Commission's biggest supporters in the legislature, state Rep. Carl Rogers, wasn't aware of the manpower shortages until he read about them in the newspaper. "They've never mentioned to me that they needed more personnel, and now they do because of what's going on," he says.
At a staging area close to where the fire made a "run" Sunday, firefighters face their own vulnerabilities as the fire advances.
"We can't ring the head of this thing," says Chris Brooks of Doe Run, Ga., a veteran dozer-operator. "Maybe they'll see the smoke in Atlanta and remember that we're out here."
Mr. Brooks may not have to wait long for the fires to get more attention. President Bush was scheduled to be briefed on the fire situation by Georgia and Florida forestry officials while in Brunswick, Ga., Tuesday.