April 20, 2010

State of Alabama
Press Release: Forestry Commission, Alabama

Budget Reduction Threatens Alabama’s Wildfire Protection

     The Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) is facing a budget shortfall of more than $5 million for Fiscal Year 2011. In light of this projection, State Forester Linda Casey said the agency is reviewing its entire structure. “We are currently developing an operational plan that will meet the 2011 forecasted revenue, which could take several months.” Based on current budget estimates, the AFC will be forced to reduce staffing by nearly one-third by the start of the fiscal year beginning October 1. This reduction will affect all services provided by the agency, including wildfire protection.

       Casey stated there are three significant factors contributing to the agency’s current financial crisis. “In addition to a loss of $3 million in federal funds, there is also a major loss of revenue (another $2 million) from severance taxes driven by the reduced demand for production in the forest products industry, as well as reduced state general fund appropriations.”

Due to past budget reductions and streamlining of operations, the Alabama Forestry Commission has reduced its staff from 529 employees in 1991 to the current 309. According to Casey, any further reduction could be devastating to the citizens of the state of Alabama.

“We don’t want to alarm people;” Casey went on to say, “however, a reduced number of firefighters will result in increased size and severity of wildfires, making suppression more difficult, as well as magnifying safety and fatigue issues for AFC firefighters. As fewer firefighters are required to cover a larger territory, response time will increase. This decrease in protection may particularly affect the homes and personal property of citizens living in rural areas, as well as the Wildland Urban Interface . . . the area where communities meet the forestland.” 

“In recent years we have been fortunate enough not to suffer devastating wildfires. But you don’t have to look very far to see the potential effects a dry summer could have. Take for instance, the 2007 Waycross-Okefenokee Fire in Georgia and Florida,” Casey remarked. “It burned over half a million acres, with property losses estimated to be $65 million in timber and $31 million in replanting cost. It took 3,300 firefighters from 44 states to contain the fires at an estimated cost of $44.1 million. In April 2009, South Carolina firefighters battled a 19,130-acre fire that destroyed 76 homes and damaged 97 others in the Myrtle Beach area.”

     Another noticeable facet of affected wildfire protection will be reduced support and assistance to volunteer fire departments (VFDs), such as less training in wildland firefighting tactics and safety provided to the VFDs by the AFC. It will result in reduced distribution of federal excess property equipment to VFDs as well.

     Casey noted that the Forestry Commission’s budget shortfall is anticipated to affect the agency’s ability to provide technical assistance and forest management services to the state’s forest landowners. “There is potential for increased fire hazard and risk of wildfires due to the reduction in prescribed burn acreage and establishment of fire lane construction for small, non-industrial landowners. It may also result in a reduction of our ability to investigate timber theft and arson cases, as well as water quality issues related to timber harvesting.”

     State Forester Casey has met with agency employees to address questions and concerns that accompany the impending layoffs.

     Casey reiterated, “Although we will prioritize the services we provide to landowners, our primary focus will be wildfire protection and the safety of our firefighters.”

     During the next several weeks the Forestry Commission will be developing recommendations for landowners and homeowners to help reduce their risk of loss

from wildfire.

  • For more information, visit http://forestry.alabama.gov
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