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Fossett search strains Nevada National Guard budget

SAN FRANCISCO, June 26 (Reuters) - The cost of searching for missing adventurer Steve Fossett -- estimated at $1.6 million -- has strained the Nevada National Guard's training budget as one of its units prepares to deploy overseas, according to a state audit.

The audit provided to Reuters on Thursday by Gov. Jim Gibbons' office estimates the air search for Fossett has cost more than $1.6 million.

Approximately $419,000 of Nevada's cost for the search fell on the state National Guard, which deployed helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for roughly two weeks during the search.

An Illinois judge declared Fossett legally dead in February, five months after the airplane the millionaire adventurer was flying disappeared over Nevada.

Fossett, a 63-year-old holder of several aviation and sailing records, vanished with his airplane after taking off from a private airstrip in western Nevada, one of the most remote and uninhabited regions of the continental United States, on Sept. 3.

An exhaustive search failed to find any wreckage.

The commanding officer of the state's National Guard now wants the state to reimburse the guard for assisting in the search. The guard paid for its search expenses from its training budget.

In a letter attached to the audit and addressed to the state's administration department, the guard's commander says one of the state guard's three helicopter units urgently needs cash to prepare for a deployment overseas.

"First, it must be noted that, if the funds billed to the State are not paid, the National Guard will likely face a shortfall in its budget, leading to the possibility that Guard personnel will not receive the training required to perform the Guard's federal mission of supporting the active duty military," the letter says.

"In fact, the Nevada National Guard Blackhawk unit is scheduled to deploy this October, and the failure to reimburse funds spent on the Fossett search significantly impacts the mission readiness of this unit." (Reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Anthony Boadle)

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