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New Steps To Restore Fire-Stricken Communities And Reduce The Future Threat Of Wildfire (09/09/2000)

Today, in his weekly radio address, President Clinton will announce new actions to help restore communities and lands affected by this season's wildfires. The President will also unveil a new strategy for strengthening federal efforts, in partnership with states and communities, to ease the threat of future wildfire. During a visit to a fire camp in Idaho last month, the President directed Agriculture Secretary Glickman and Interior Secretary Babbitt to report back to him with recommendations to help communities recover from this year's fires - the worst in half a century - and to reduce the threat of future fires. Today, the President will accept the Secretaries' recommendations, and pledge to work with Congress to secure the funding needed to fully implement them.

The Worst Fire Season in Half a Century. The 2000 fire season ranks among the most severe in our country's history. The two major causes of this year's intense fires include a severe drought -- accompanied by an unusual number of storms, lightning strikes and windy conditions -- and the long-term effects of 100 years of aggressive fire suppression and the resulting buildup of fire fuel in our forests and rangelands. Today, 38 large fires continue to burn across nine states. As of early September, more than 6.5 million acres have burned and more than 76,000 wildfires have started. More than 25,000 civilian and military personnel have been mobilized to fight the fires. Through their extraordinary efforts, more than 75,000 fires have been contained this year. Extreme weather conditions are predicted to continue in coming weeks, and as the Santa Anna winds pick up, California will face an increased risk of wildfire.

Dedicating Fire Fighting Resources. While some firefighters are now heading home, thousands remain on the fire lines protecting hundreds of communities across the West. In his address, the President will renew his commitment to ensuring the resources and support needed to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible. To date, the President has released $590 million in emergency fire-fighting funds to combat the western fires; and appropriate compensation for hard-pressed firefighters has also been made available.

Helping Communities Recover and Rebuild. The President announced new actions to help hard-hit communities recover from this year's severe fires. These actions include:

  • Protecting Communities From Future Damage: In addition to fire damage, communities face other health and safety threats, including mud slides from heavy rainfall or water contamination from polluted runoff. To help prevent future damage, the President announced that more than 50 rapid response teams have been dispatched to work with local communities to develop plans to repair land damaged by the fires and to protect precious water supplies. These teams will review burned areas to assess what sites need to be treated and what kind of work needs to be done to restore them.
  • Restoring Damaged Lands and Forests: To date, more than 4 million acres have been burned. To restore damaged lands across the West, the President announced that $40 million has been released for 90 restoration projects. The Interior and Agriculture Departments will begin restoration activities on the damaged lands, including re-vegetation, soil stabilization, erosion control, seeding of native species and stabilization of municipal watersheds. These projects include: $101,550 to reseed approximately 750 acres damaged this summer in Devine Canyon, Idaho; $553,200 for joint federal, state and local ranchers' efforts to reseed 8,000 acres of burned lands in Idaho's Bell Mare fire; and $100,000 to help reseed burned lands and construct nearly ten miles of fence to allow for natural recovery and watershed protection in the Piceance Basin west of Meeker, Colorado.
  • Providing One-Stop Disaster Assistance: In many communities, workers, small business owners, families and others are in need of new resources and assistance to rebuild after this year's intense forest fires. Today, the President will announce that the Administration will soon establish one-stop disaster assistance centers in Idaho and Montana where citizens can gain quick access to a full array of services, from unemployment aid to small business loans. FEMA, the Small Business Administration and the USDA's Forest Service and Rural Development Agency will work together to provide quick and easy access for affected citizens and businesses.

A Strategy to Reduce Future Threats. This season's wildfire patterns reflect a century-long disruption of the natural fire cycle. In the late 19th century, millions of acres of forests and wildlands were cleared, leaving behind undergrowth, slash and weaker trees more susceptible to fire. Catastrophic fires in the early 1900's led to the adoption of an all-out federal fire-suppression policy that allowed an unnatural buildup of heavy undergrowth, which serves as "fuel" for forest fires. In addition, rapid population growth in the West has exacerbated fire risk as new development occurs alongside fire-prone forest and grasslands the so-called urban-wildland interface.

In 1994, the Clinton-Gore Administration initiated the first-ever, comprehensive interagency review of wildland fire policy. Over the last six years, the Administration has expanded by fivefold its efforts to reduce the fuel load in the nation's forests through prescribed burns and mechanical thinning, which leave behind healthier, more fire-resistant forests. More than 2.4 million acres will be treated this year.

Today, the President will accept the Secretaries' recommendations for building on the Administration's efforts to reduce the threat of fire and restore healthy forests. The strategy calls for: significantly increasing the number of acres undergoing fuel reduction treatment each year; developing new uses and markets for small-diameter trees and other biomass removed during fuel reduction; forging new partnerships with local communities and helping them expand their efforts to reduce fire risk; and establishing a Cabinet-level team, chaired by the Agriculture and Interior Secretaries, to coordinate these efforts. The report concludes that these efforts can successfully reduce fire risk without relying on increased commercial logging.

The Secretaries' report recommends an additional $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2001 to carry out this strategy and to support other efforts to help fire-stricken communities and maintain firefighting capabilities. The President is committed to working with Congress to secure this critical funding.

Working With States and Communities. Over the coming weeks, Secretaries Glickman and Babbitt will travel to Western states to meet with Governors and to visit fire-stricken communities to detail their recommendations and to hear from those on the front lines of this summer's fires how best to recover and to reduce the future threat of fires.

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