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Thursday, January 22, 2004

For Immediate Release

GAO Delivers Report on Biscuit Fire

DeFazio, Walden call for increased resources, firefighting personnel to combat Western wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) and Greg Walden (R-Hood River) called for increased federal resources to combat Western wildfires following today’s release of a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the Biscuit Fire. In November 2002 the Oregon lawmakers requested a comprehensive review of the Biscuit Fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres of forestland in southern Oregon and northern California during the summer of 2002.

"This report by the GAO makes clear that the federal government must make the appropriate investment in wildfire suppression resources to protect Western forests and communities from the threat of catastrophic wildfire," said Walden, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.  "Federal firefighting agencies did an excellent job in protecting the vast majority of homes and property that were threatened by the Biscuit Fire. However, we must learn from this experience.  The GAO report provides us with the direction that we must follow to respond more effectively to future fire outbreaks."

The GAO examination of the Biscuit fire studied the following:

  1. whether policies and procedures were in place for acquiring needed firefighting resources during the initial days of the Biscuit Fire, and the extent to which these policies and procedures were followed when the fire was first identified;
  2. what resource management issues, if any, affected the ability of firefighting personnel to effectively fight the Biscuit Fire, and;
  3. what differences, if any, existed in key certification standards for personnel among federal agencies and state agencies- particularly Oregon – in fighting the fire and whether any such differences affected efforts to respond to the Biscuit Fire.

The GAO report released today found that insufficient resources, both human and mechanical, were available during the initial phase of the fire, when aggressive action could have prevented the conflagration from becoming catastrophic. On the Biscuit Fire alone, 200 requests for supervisory positions were never filled. The report also noted that the ability to adequately combat the fire was constrained by the severe nature of the fire season nationwide.

"With the current predictions about another severe fire year, the administration should demonstrate that more qualified managers and supervisors are available than were in 2002," said DeFazio.  "The administration must also ensure that the Forest Service has an adequate fleet of helicopters and tankers at their disposal."

The GAO report found that a lack of adequately trained contract firefighters contributed to the destructiveness of the Biscuit fire.

The report also addresses the suggestion that California firefighting personnel could have quashed the fire in its initial stage had Oregon officials requested a helicopter from the Fortuna, California dispatch center. This suggestion was one of the factors that originally led Walden and DeFazio to request the GAO inquiry into the Biscuit Fire. The report states:

"Grants Pass personnel did not request resources from the Fortuna dispatch center, a neighboring center located in the adjoining dispatch region in northern California. Grants Pass personnel believed that Fortuna had no available resources.... However, Forest Service and California state officials working in the Fortuna dispatch center expressed differing viewpoints on whether they could have provided the helicopter for the Biscuit Fire, had Grants Pass requested it. State officials at the dispatch center said that the helicopter could have been sent to Oregon. However, Forest Service dispatchers disagreed, stating that the helicopter was needed to fight fires in northern California."

Walden and DeFazio will have an opportunity to ask Bush Administration officials about the deficiencies detailed in the GAO report during at a hearing by the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health on fire suppression readiness scheduled for Thursday, May 13.  Rep. DeFazio has taken a leave of absence from the Resources Committee to serve on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security but will participate in Thursday's proceedings at the invitation of Chairman Walden.

Congressman Walden represents the Second District of Oregon, which includes 20 counties in southern, central and eastern Oregon. He is a Deputy Whip and a member of both the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Resources.

Congressman DeFazio represents the Fourth Congressional District of Oregon, which includes 7 counties in southwestern Oregon. He is a member of the House Resources Committee as well as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.







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