NEW YORK - With more than 6.5 million acres of Western forests charred by wildfires, President Clinton pledged Saturday to seek nearly $1.6 billion from Congress to help hard-hit communities recover as the smoke clears and prevent future blazes.
He said the government has dispatched more than 50 rapid response teams to work with local communities to repair damaged lands and protect water supplies from mudslides and dirty runoff.
In addition, he announced the release of nearly $40 million for 90 restoration projects across the West and said the government would establish one-stop centers in Idaho and Montana providing quick access to services from unemployment aid to small business loans.
''We want to make sure the help gets to those who need it right away,'' the president said in his weekly radio address, broadcast during a visit to New York. He said he had accepted the recommendation of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to seek an additional $1.6 billion to respond to this year's fires and reduce future hazards.
Clinton's action is intended to show compassion toward fire victims and win support from environmentalists for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, in the key Western states of California, Washington and Oregon. ''Saving lives and property is, and will remain, priority one,'' Clinton said.
This year's fire season ranks among the worst in history. The devastation is blamed on a severe drought and the long-term effects of a century of aggressive fire suppression, resulting in an unnatural buildup of flammable brush and shrubs. Thirty-eight large fires continue to burn across nine states.
Some environmentalists are wary of a section of the plan to remove trees and brush from millions of acres of U.S. Forest Service land over five years.
''We're reducing the risk of fire on more than 2.4 million acres a year - a fivefold increase since 1994,'' Clinton said. ''We want to work with communities to expand these efforts, in an environmentally sensitive way, particularly in those areas at greatest risk of wildfire.''
A report by Glickman and Babbitt said the government can reduce the threat of fire and restore healthy forests without relying on increased commercial logging.
It called for significantly increasing the number of acres undergoing ''fuel reduction treatment,'' developing new uses and markets for small-diameter trees and other materials removed during the treatment and creating a Cabinet-level team to coordinate those efforts.
Clinton recommended increasing overall spending for wildland fire programs to $2.8 billion, an increase of nearly $1.6 billion. That would include additional spending of about $340 million for training, equipment and supplies, $88 million for cooperative programs with local communities and $390 million for fuels treatment and burned area restoration.
The increase also includes about $770 million to replenish federal fire suppression accounts, which have been depleted by this year's extraordinary costs, and to replay emergency transfers from other accounts.
Clinton said the government has provided $590 million in emergency firefighting funds and has declared Idaho and Montana disaster areas, making them eligible for more federal relief.
On the Net:
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov
Interior Department: http://www.doi.gov
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov