- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Lawmakers from both parties are calling for fast action on President Bushs forestry initiative, as wildfires that have killed at least 15 persons and destroyed more than 1,100 homes race through Southern California.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, asked the Senate last night to start moving the Healthy Forests Restoration Act that has stalled over issues of debate time and amendments.

“With the drought, the devastation caused by the bark beetle and the dangerous buildup of dry tinder and undergrowth, I feared that California could face a devastating season of wildfires. Sadly, that seems to be happening now,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, said Americans should be outraged by the lack of action in Congress.

“How many homes must burn, how many people must lose their valuables, how many lives must be threatened before a couple obstructionists in the Senate will relent and let a bipartisan wildfire legislation be debated and considered?” Mr. McInnis asked.

Mr. Bushs initiative expedites action to reduce dead and dying trees, which act as hazardous fuels, on 20 million acres of land deemed at high risk of catastrophic fires.

Santa Ana winds have driven at least 10 fires over 300,000 acres in California, destroying 850 homes and forcing the evacuation of 40,000 residents. Hardest hit are San Diego and San Bernardino counties. Los Angeles County is bracing for rolling blackouts as the fire destroys transformers and transmission lines.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, blocked the legislation last week, but his spokeswoman said yesterday his concerns had been addressed.

“It doesnt mean we will support it, but we are allowing it to go forward,” said spokeswoman Allison Dobson.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, does not have an official hold on the bill but opposed a procedure requiring unanimous consent to bring up the bill for debate last week.

Mr. Bingaman wants a vote on his amendment that addresses emergency funding for firefighting. Spokeswoman Jude McCartin said Mr. Bingaman wanted to move the legislation, but “the Republicans walked away” from seeking a compromise.

The House passed Mr. Bushs proposal May 20 on a 256-170 vote. The agreement to move the bill through the Senate was reached earlier this month by Republican Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, and Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona, as well as Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, and Mrs. Feinstein.

The House Resources Committee last month held a field hearing in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where officials pondered the destruction of a forest fire in San Bernardino combined with Santa Ana winds.

“If a large fire occurs, it is likely to threaten the lives of many residents and forest visitors,” said Jack Blackwell, regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and Resources Committee chairman, said the warnings from that hearing have come true.

“Given the devastating effects, it would be irresponsible not to act on this bill,” Mr. Pombo said.

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