Despite complaints from environmentalists, US Congress has passed a forest-thinning bill to spend US$760m annually on preventing deadly wildfires like those that recently scorched Southern California.

The bipartisan-crafted bill, expected to be signed by President Bush soon, will streamline environmental reviews and the judicial process for forest-thinning projects on 20 million acres of federal land, while giving local foresters more input to determine which land near communities is susceptible to fires.

The legislation was easily passed 286-140 by the House of Representatives, following earlier Senate approval, and was described as a “landmark achievement” by the White House.

The Forest Service estimates 190 million acres of forest land in the US is susceptible to fires.