Burning forests, burning chaparral, burning money



Recent mountain snow showers and leeward rains helped forestry officials corral a pair of wildfires in south-central Montana that claimed more than 250,000 acres since late August. With those blazes extinguished, national attention turned to the closer Day Fire, which exploded from 20,000 acres to more than 85,000 in its third weekend of activity. Most recent reports placed the acreage lost at 93,399.

"This is the highest priority fire in the nation," local U.S. Department of Forestry official Maeton Freel said.

Threatening homes and prompting recommended evacuations in isolated communities around the Los Padres National Forest, the Day Fire pushed all the way south to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line. The Los Padres main office in Goleta claimed 25 percent containment last week. That number has since fallen to 15 percent.

In San Luis Obispo and other parts of coastal California, airborne ash and smoke wafting up from the south even filled the sky with a Los Angelean haze on Sept. 18.

Investigators believe that a negligent camper burning refuse on Labor Day started the wildfire, but named no suspects in their search for the mysterious arsonist. That little misstep, according to firefighters, has drained more than $20 million from the U.S.

Forest Service budget. Nationwide, those coffers are running dry.

Chances are, by the time you read this, expenses in fighting the 2006 wildfire season already surpassed the mark of $1.27 billion set in 2002. Earlier this month, the season blew past another high-water mark by consuming more than 8.8 million acres of fuel.

Sacramento Bee reports revealed that the funding shortfall might siphon resources away from reforestation efforts.

More than 20,000 firefighters are currently deployed nationwide fighting major wildfires roughly 1,900 continued fighting the Day Fire as of publication. Over the weekend, the personnel tally reached as high as 2,100.

"We've deactivated a few people," Freel said. "Some guys have been out there for two weeks."


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