PORTLAND - Slim budgets, overgrown forests, climate change and the penchant among baby boomers for expensive, unprotected retirement homes in western woods threaten the nation's firefighting capacity, officials have warned Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
More and more people live in and near flammable forests but are not acting to protect their homes because they expect fire crews to rush to their rescue, officials said in a memo prepared at Kempthorne's request, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
The paper said it obtained a copy of the one-page memo, which said forest thinning efforts promoted by federal land agencies and the Bush administration are not keeping pace with the buildup of tinder.
The warning was not prompted by the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters last month in Southern California while trying to save a home from wind-driven flames.
But "it makes the reality of what we're talking about that much more intense," said Tom Boatner, head of the group of fire officials that wrote it.
A record 9.4 million acres burned this year across the country, surpassing the previous record of 8.7 million acres in 2005.
"Five of the 10 worst seasons since 1960 in terms of acres burned have occurred in the last seven years," said the memo from the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which directs firefighting crews and equipment from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
The group said half of all new homes built nationwide in the last 10 years have gone up in or next to fire-prone forests or other wildlands, and retiring baby boomers are likely to move into such areas in rising numbers.
Nina Rose Hatfield, deputy assistant secretary of the interior, told the paper the government is spending its money on thinning where it will do the most good, such as around homes and other property, she said. It's also investing in equipment and training for lo cal agencies that can reach fires fast, before they blow out of control, according to the newspaper's report.