WASHINGTON – Colorado should prepare for a “western-type Katrina” this year,and the federal government needs to clarify its financial responsibility for fire fighting,lawmakers said Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office testified before a Senate subcommittee that the federal and state governments do not use consistent cost-sharing standards when both are involved in fighting wild-land fires.
There is an “absence of clearly defined,commonly accepted,understanding of basic responsibilities,” said Robert Robinson,GAO's managing director for environmental issues.
Sen. Ken Salazar,D-Colo.,urged the committee to resolve cost-sharing problems promptly,as Colorado is already in the midst of a destructive fire season.
“We are looking at a western-type Katrina,” Salazar said. Already this year,Colorado has had more acres burn than during last year's entire fire season.
Sen. Wayne Allard,R-Colo.,sent a letter to President Bush Wednesday asking for assistance if the fire season worsens.
“We need to be prepared in case the perfect firestorm erupts in Colorado,” he wrote.
The federal government often pays more than its share of fire fighting costs,said Lynn Scarlett,deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior.
It spends money to fight fires on federal and non-federal lands,and then the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses state and local governments for part of their costs for fighting the same fires.
GAO recommended the federal government define standard guidelines that state and federal officials can use when assessing the cost of fires.
Anne Heissenbuttel,executive director of the National Association of State Foresters,warned inflexible standards would not allow local and federal officials to adjust to something as unpredictable as a fire.
“Federal agencies have an obligation to keep fires originating on their lands from spreading off federal lands,” she said. It's the responsibility of state and local law to determine the financial obligations of the state,she added.