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As Fires Rage, Feds Cut Funding for Prevention

FILE - In this June 18, 2013 file photo, Jeremy and Kelly Beach look into the remains of their home off Ravine Drive in Colorado Springs, Colo. As the West battles one catastrophic wildfire after another, the federal government is spending less and less on its main program for preventing blazes in the first place. (AP Photo/The Colorado Springs Gazette, Michael Ciaglo, File) MAGS OUT

FILE - In this June 18, 2013 file photo, Jeremy and Kelly Beach look into the remains of their home off Ravine Drive in Colorado Springs, Colo. As the West battles one catastrophic wildfire after another, the federal government is spending less and less on its main program for preventing blazes in the first place. (AP Photo/The Colorado Springs Gazette, Michael Ciaglo, File) MAGS OUT

Colorado Springs, Colo. — As the West battles one catastrophic wildfire after another, the federal government is spending less and less on its main program for preventing blazes in the first place.

A combination of government austerity and the ballooning cost of battling the ruinous fires has taken a bite out of federal efforts to remove the dead trees and flammable underbrush that clog Western forests. The U.S. Forest Service says that next year it expects to treat 1 million fewer acres than it did last year.

In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, the government is spending less on the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program, run jointly by the Forest Service and the Interior Department, than it did in 2002. And President Obama has proposed a 31 percent cut for the fiscal year that begins in the fall.

“Because the fires have gotten bigger and bigger, we’ve spent more of our money on suppression and less on fuel removal,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in an interview. “We’ve gotten behind the eight-ball on this.”

Federal firefighting officials say there is no question the program prevents some fires and makes others less dangerous to homeowners and firefighters alike. But they say they are caught in a bind.

“It’s a wicked public policy question,” said Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation management. “We’ve got to make trade-offs. We’re living in a time of constrained budgets.”

Wildfires have grown in intensity and cost across the nation because of a combination of high temperatures, drought, an infestation of pine-killing beetles, and the rising number of people living close to nature. Since the 1990s, 15 million to 17 million new homes have been built in dangerous fire zones, according to a government report.