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Forest Chief Calls for Thinning


By Jeff Barnard, The Associated Press

Touring the largest active wildfire in the country, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said yesterday it was imperative to thin national forests and restore the natural role of fire in the ecosystem.

Accompanied by representatives of the Interior and Agriculture departments, Bosworth said he wanted a firsthand look at the Florence Fire to see how well the national firefighting effort is dealing with what could become the worst wildfire season in history.

"The most important thing we can do in a good part of the West is doing some thinning and reintroduce fire back into these fire-dependent ecosystems in a controlled manner," Bosworth said.

"We are always going to have fires in the West, so when we do have those fires, at least they're not as impactive to the environment."

The National Fire Information Center reports 5 million acres have burned in the country this year, including more than 715,000 acres in Oregon.

Since starting from lightning strikes July 13, the Florence Fire has grown to cover 296,000 acres on the Siskiyou National Forest and adjoining lands in Southwestern Oregon and Northern California.

The threat to the 17,000 people of the Illinois Valley has eased, but the fire destroyed four homes and continues to threaten the community of Agness in the Rogue River Canyon and the Wilderness Retreat subdivision east of Brookings.

To date, $27.2 million has been spent fighting the fire, though it is only 15 percent contained. More than 5,000 people have been assembled from around the country.

Bosworth wanted to see how the money is being spent.

"We're really interested in finding out how things are working out on these fires, how well crews are working," Bosworth said.

Brian Waidmann, chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, said he was impressed by the level of cooperation between federal, state and local agencies.

Dave Tenny, deputy undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources, said preventing future fires depends on active management of national forests.

The $325 million budget for fighting fires this year has been spent, and the bill could run up to $1 billion, Bosworth said.

Money allocated for preventing future fires has been moved to firefighting, and Bosworth said he hoped Congress would restore the diverted funding.

He denied assertions by environmentalists that the Forest Service has failed to focus thinning around settlements and used fire prevention as a pretext to cut valuable large trees that stand up to fire best.

"It's a new day and a new time," Bosworth said. "It's time for people to get on with solving the problem."

The Florence Fire has been the top priority in the nation for scarce firefighting resources for the past week because of its size, volatility and threat to people.

Fire commanders hope to keep the fire from the Rogue River Canyon community of Agness on its north flank, but the blaze still has the potential to break out to the west toward the coastal town of Brookings.

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