Nightly News   |  June 21, 2013

Fire prevention funding dwindles

In South Fork, Colo., a surging Colorado fire has forced hundreds to evacuate, one of several recent blazes that made for an especially destructive fire season in the state. Now federal cuts may diminish fire prevention funding even further across the nation, forcing some communities to take matters into their own hands.  NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez reports.

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>>> let's go out west. another big and still developing story we're following tonight. those exploding wildfires including one that officials say threatens to burn down an entire town. it's all happening at a time when the federal government is cutting back on funds to prevent these types of fires, leaving a lot of cities now scrambling to do it on their own. our report tonight from nbc's gabe gutierrez.

>> reporter: with fire crews stretched to the limit and lives hanging in the balance --

>> i didn't think it would be this bad.

>> it's a total loss. my chimney is the only thing left standing.

>> reporter: -- lawmakers are facing a burning policy question as another surging wildfire today is forcing 400 residents of south fork , colorado, to evacuate.

>> give me some water!

>> reporter: the dilemma, u.s. taxpayers are spending more to fight forest fires , but washington is spending less to prevent them. the obama administration is proposing a 30% cut to a federal program that removes dead trees and flammable underbrush. you can find it all over western states . look at how quickly it can fuel a fire. with less focus on prevention, the forest service is forced to spend more once the fires are already burning.

>> we've got to forecast better about where we're going to hit these fires. it's a complex equation that we've got to deal with now with less firefighting assets.

>> reporter: for some perspective, in 1991 , fighting fires took up just 13% of the forest service budget. last year, it was more than 40%. so in arizona, local firefighters are taking matters into their own hands.

>> tree falling!

>> reporter: using local tax dollars that voters approved, these crews from flagstaff are clearing brush reducing fuel for potential fires.

>> it's not a matter of if a fire will occur but when and where. and we know it will occur and the consequences will be dire if we don't take action today to reduce that risk.

>> reporter: still, not all western communities have those resources, and with tight budgets all around, it is a burning question with no simple answer. on this first day of summer, officials are warning people across the west to brace for the worst fire season in memory. right now, brian, there are at least 21 major uncontained fires nationwide.

>> gabe gutierrez, calabasas, california, for us tonight. gabe, thanks.