WASHINGTON (AP) – The Forest Service has exhausted its firefighting budget at a time that more than two dozen large wildfires are raging in the West.

The agency said Monday it would begin transferring money from other accounts – including fire prevention projects – to continue putting out fires.

Underfunding is a perennial problem for the Forest Service and one that has drawn increasing criticism from Western lawmakers and watchdog groups. They say the agency needs to do a better job estimating how much will be needed to fight fires and Congress should find a way to provide the money.

“Here we go again,” said Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that has criticized the Forest Service. “Unfortunately, we handle every fire season like it’s a financial crisis.”

Ashdown and other critics say the makeshift approach – borrowing from accounts for fire prevention, road repair and restoration of areas damaged by previous fires – makes little sense, since many of the programs are intended to keep fires from happening at all.

Monday’s announcement comes less than a week after Congress rejected President Bush’s request for $289 million in emergency spending to fight wildfires. Bush had requested the money – which would supplement $578 million already allocated for firefighting by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management – as part of an emergency spending bill for natural disasters.

Pressured by record federal deficits and eager to leave town, the House Republican leadership cut out the wildfire money before leaving on summer recess July 25.

The Senate had initially approved the firefighting money in its version of the emergency bill. But senators removed the funding last week to align their bill with the House and send it to Bush for his signature.

The omission of the firefighting money left many Western senators seething.

“I have as conservative a voting record as anybody, but I don’t try to be crazy about it,” said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

“If there’s something that’s a legitimate role of government, even conservatives understand you fund it.”

The Forest Service said Monday it expects to spend at least $773 million on firefighting this year, about $355 million more than allocated in the current budget. That estimate could go up, depending on the severity of large fires now burning in nine Western states, officials said.

The Forest Service spent more than $1.4 billion in 2002, one of the worst fire seasons on record.

In congressional testimony this year, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the agency and Congress must find a long-term solution.

“It’s absolutely crazy to continue year after year wondering if we have to transfer money to cover fire costs,” he said.

On the Net:

Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

AP-ES-08-04-03 1831EDT

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